DARPA is scary. The military research agency has created a number of robots that will ensure our destruction, but at least it's now making advanced prosthetics for when the robots chop off our arms with chainsaws.
DARPA updated the world this week on its progress with the Reliable Neural-Interface Technology program. As the name suggests, it's a program dedicated to creating prosthetics that not only respond to neural impulses, but send signals back to the brain. In other words, DARPA is creating a robot arm that can give the sense of touch back to those who have lost limbs.
“Although the current generation of brain, or cortical, interfaces have been used to control many degrees of freedom in an advanced prosthesis, researchers are still working on improving their long-term viability and performance,” said Jack Judy, DARPA program manager. “The novel peripheral interfaces developed under RE-NET are approaching the level of control demonstrated by cortical interfaces and have better biotic and abiotic performance and reliability. Because implanting them is a lower risk and less invasive procedure, peripheral interfaces offer greater potential than penetrating cortical electrodes for near-term treatment of amputees. RE-NET program advances are already being made available to injured warfighters in clinical settings.”
The video below shows a veteran using one of DARPA's new prosthetic limbs. The amazing part about this particular prosthetic is that it interfaces with existing muscles to essentially create a natural extension of the body.
Amazing as it may be, the above prosthetic still isn't entirely natural yet. That's where direct sensory feedback comes in. Here's another prosthetic that actually sends the sense of touch through the prosthetic to the users' mind. It creates a far more natural experience for the user.
These prosthetics are being tested in a limited study involving veterans so it's hard to say when they'll be available for testing among the general public. Still, it's incredibly encouraging to see this kind of progress being made.