Walk A Mile In Their Shoes

Prosthetic technology is seeing rapid improvement with the integration of AI.


To most of us, when we think about how artificial intelligence (AI) enhances our mobility, the most top-of-mind examples might be how our smart phones respond to voice commands when we ask for directions to the nearest coffee shop or the current weather at the location to which we’re heading. But for people missing limbs, AI has the potential to give them the mobility that they might never have otherwise. Enabled by smaller, more efficient microelectronics and longer battery life, AI can be combined with advances in medical knowledge and kinesiology to achieve next-generation developments in prosthetics.

From victims of traumatic accidents to military veterans to newborns with birth defects, 185,000 people are in need of prosthetic limbs each year. Incredibly, funding for prosthetics technology tends to rise only during and immediately after headline-grabbing wars, then decreases in peacetime. But there are companies, organizations and individuals dedicated to improving the technology, with many efforts focused on integrating AI.

At Advantest, we are peripherally involved in medical technology by leveraging our inspection expertise to enhance diagnostic capabilities that avoid invasive procedures. While we don’t work directly in prosthetics, at the Annual Global Marcom Summit that I host for my team, in 2014 the Helping Hands organization brought in several structural components used in making prosthetic hands, which the organization sends to underdeveloped countries whose citizens are in need. The technology behind bionics has steadily evolved since then. For example, now motors less than a half inch in size can be used to power individual fingers while micro-sensors precisely control the grip pressure applied in doing common tasks.

Companies including HDT Global, which partners with DARPA (more on that below), and U.K.-based Touch Bionics, maker of the i-limb, are making the most of improvements in microprocessors, software and battery technology to usher in a new era in bionics. Some of these biomechanical marvels include replacement limbs, artificial organs and high-tech exoskeletons that help paralysis patients walk again.

Amazingly, AI has been used to give mobility to fully immobilized people. Using semiconductor technology, researchers at Brown University implanted a sensor in the brain of a 58-year-old quadriplegic woman, who was then able to manipulate a robotic arm to pick up and drink from a bottle. Electrical signals from neurons in her motor cortex were used to command a computer-controlled prosthetic arm to grasp the bottle with the woman’s right hand.

Harnessing the brain’s energy and determination to achieve outward mobility has taken off in other ways, too. During a study by DARPA, neural transmitters allowed another quadriplegic to use her mind to “fly” an F-35 jet airplane on a computer simulator. Even more amazingly, the woman had never before piloted an aircraft.

Improving the capabilities and usability of prosthetics has become the heartfelt mission of organizations ranging from the U.S. Navy to leading universities. Perhaps the leading advocate in the field is Dr. Hugh Herr, director of the biomechatronics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and an engineer driving the creation of AI-enabled bionic limbs. An avid outdoorsman, Dr. Herr lost both his legs below the knees to frostbite after three and a half days stranded in a blizzard while mountaineering at the age of 17. Determined to climb again, he designed prosthetics that he uses to pursue his varied interests including ice climbing, running and swimming. He owns or shares a dozen patents for bionic solutions including a computer-controlled artificial knee that automatically adapts to different walking speeds and the BiOM bionic ankle that assists users’ forward motion, helping them to regain energy they expend with each step.

Despite the leaps forward, the development of bionics faces a significant financial hurdle. While smart prosthetics embodies very high-end products, bionics does not have the high-volume market potential to generate larger returns on investment. It’s a reality that can be deflating while, at the same time, making us count our blessings.

But it is important to continue to expand our awareness of this rewarding human-machine interface. If you or your thought-provoking trade organization is looking for a keynote speaker to link our industry’s contributions with a greater good, I’d love to buy a table to hear Hugh Herr share his experience.

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