People have used tools to overcome injury for as long as we’ve had tools. The cane is a tool to allow for easier movement. The iconic pirate peg leg (while probably not historical accurate) is an example of a crude prosthetic. And everyone’s seen, RoboCop the cultural touchstone of bionics.

Recently advances in bionics, and prosthetics have begun to blur the line between fact, and fiction.

Any artificial replacement for a body part is technically a prosthesis. Breast implants are technically prosthesis, even though we don’t think of them that way. The advances in prosthetics we’re interested in come where prosthetics and bionics meet.

Passive prosthesis vs Active Bionics

Passive prosthetics are a replacement that serves its purpose but has no ability to exert force by itself. Honestly, we’ve had pretty good passive prosthesis for a while. Metal articulating legs with springs, provide enough support for most single let amputees to live relatively normal lives. Flexible blade prosthesis work well enough to let double amputees run at a full sprint.

Amputee with blade prosthetics.

Still these prosthetics are far from ideal. They cannot generate energy themselves meaning that they rely on the rest of the body to compensate. This can lead to other problems from the strain. They also can’t be controlled to do more precise movements.

Here bionics really shine and are beginning to make some really inspiring advances.

Bionic prosthesis look much less peg leg, and a lot more terminator which I think is very cool.

Bionic arm with clear case

A powered bionic leg or arm has the ability to exert force which means it’s not just dead weight. They can propel you up stairs, grasp door handles and do increasingly dexterous tasks.

This is thanks to advances in robotics but even more so in biology, allowing us to control the bionic limb.

Gaining Greater Control

Most bionic limbs rely on Myoelectronics which can pick up on the muscle’s movements in the remainder of the limb. It allows for good enough control to open and close each finger individually. Impressive, but we can do better. Recently ultrasonic control has shown an even greater degree of control.

BUT, the greatest advance is brain-machine interfaces that could let us control a bionic limb with our mind. Not only that, it’s possible we could relay touch back to the brain. An amputee could have a totally functional prosthesis that’s just as good as a normal arm. Maybe even better than a normal arm.

Concerns About Improving Past Human Biology

As soon as there’s a bionic arm that out performs a normal human one, there’s gonna be someone who chops his arm off to get one. Whether or not we should let them, gets into the interesting, and a bit scary topic of Transhumanism. I’ll be doing a few posts on this topic in the future so keep in touch.

Prosthetics have come a long way but there’s still a few hurdles to jump. Hopefully we can reach a point where losing a limb is an inconvenience rather than a tragedy. And when we do there are some ethical questions we’ll have to ask ourselves.

Before you go, I’m curious, If you have, or needed a prosthetic, would you want it to mimic the look of a natural limb, or intentionally look synthetic? Let me know in the comments and ill give my opinion as well.