Smartphone as prosthesis

Noticing that many of the same sensors, silicon, and batteries used in smartphones are being used to create smarter artificial limbs, Fast Company draws the conclusion that the market for smartphones is driving technology development useful for bionics. While interesting enough, the article doesn’t continue to the next logical and far more interesting possibility: that phones themselves are becoming parts of our bodies. To what extent are smartphones already bionic organs, and how could we tell if they were? I’m actively researching design in this area – stay tuned for more about the body-incorporated phone.


Neuroscientists at the Mayo Clinic campus in Jacksonville, Florida, have demonstrated how brain waves can be used to type alphanumerical characters on a computer screen. By merely focusing on the “q” in a matrix of letters, for example, that “q” appears on the monitor.

This is a welcome incremental step towards brain-controlled text input. The other interesting about this experiment is that it was done on people who already had electrodes implanted in their brain to monitor and study their epilepsy. The scientists thought that the electrodes’ output might be able to be controlled with thought, and it turns out it can.

This is very different than the typical brain-computer interface, which uses electroencephalography (EEG). Basically, an EEG is a helmet that oozes tricolor pasta:

But an eletrocorticograph (ECoG, pronounced “eecog”), like the one used for this experiment, sits on the brain itself, like this:

"We're stimulating areas of the retina that are downstream from the rod and cone cells… [to] directly send impulses to the brain."

Watch this beautiful video by National Geographic about Jo Ann Lewis, the 17th recipient of a bionic eye implant. The video shows the surgery itself, so it may be unsettling to some. Because I know the surgeon is making a blind woman see, the gore a non-issue for me. From a technical standpoint, it’s a rare and fascinating close-up of a procedure to wire up a sensor to a human nerve.

The name of the surgeon is Rand Spencer, M.D., and we need many more like him.

Hand prosthesis with sensitive fingertips

This is the first device of its kind that sends signals back to the brain, allowing the user to have feelings in their fingers and hand. The Smart Hand takes advantage of the phantom limb syndrome which is the sensation amputees have that their missing body part is still attached… By connecting sensors in the hand to the nerve endings in the stump of the arm, patients can feel and control the Smart Hand.

The test patient underwent a complicated, experimental surgical procedure to wire the nerve endings in his stump to an electronic interface. His personal risk will advance science and potentially help millions of people. Thank you, Robin Af Ekenstam.

In the next version I hope they make the Smart Hand’s fingertips get a little bit more sensitive after you clip its fingernails.

(via Engadget)

Targeted reinnervation

A woman’s nerves have been rewired to help her control a prosthetic limb, an experimental procedure for amputees called targeted reinnervation. It’s a fascinating concept, and it works: a noncritical muscle’s nerves are deactivated, and the severed efferent (motor) nerve fibers from the missing limb are inserted into the muscle. The brain can then control a prosthesis by sending motor signals to the muscle. Additionally, the afferent (sensory) nerve fibers from the severed limb are moved to the skin above the same muscle. Stimulation of those nerves are now mapped as sensation originating from the prosthesis. Claudia Mitchell can control her prosthetic arm by sending motor signals to her chest muscle, and experiences cutaneous sensations in her prosthetic arm when the skin on her chest is touched or its temperature is changed.

Of course, rather than simply explaining the news in as clear a way as possible, ABC proceeds to extremes: “Mitchell has become the first real ‘Bionic Woman’: part human, part computer.” She’s first and she’s real, and you can tell because ABC even awarded her the official capitalized title of “Bionic Woman.” Presumptuous, and also inaccurate. In fact, this technology is exciting because it doesn’t have much to do with computers at all. Rather than relying on predictive software to control the motors in the prosthesis (which was the technique used in this BBC producer’s prosthetic foot), Ms. Mitchell controls her hardware directly, with her brain.

In any case, the success of this procedure has led to some interesting discoveries, such as the fact that Ms. Mitchell retains a 1-to-1 mapping of her reinnervated afferent fibers to locations on her prosthesis.

Paul Marasco, a touch specialist and research scientist with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, was brought in to study the hand sensations that Mitchell feels in her chest. He put together a detailed map, connecting what Mitchell’s missing hand feels with the corresponding locations on her chest.

Depending on where you touch her chest, “she has the distinct sense of her joints being bent back in particular ways, and she has feelings of her skin being stretched,” Marasco said.

If a human’s nervous system can be extended to include a prosthesis, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that it can be interfaced with external signal networks, such as other humans’ nervous systems, or the internet. How will this affect embodied cognition? Societal structure? Consciousness?

Here’s a video of Claudia in action. Seems like she’s got style too—the upper part of her artificial arm is covered in a camoflauge pattern. Seen!