A "Manhattan Project" for the Next Generation of Bionic Arms

Johns Hopkins researchers lead a nationwide effort to make a bionic arm that wires directly into the brain to let amputees regain motor control--and feeling

9 min read

In February, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) authorized the next phase of a four-year program to create prosthetic arms that can better emulate natural limbs. They will more closely match the real thing in appearance and function. And the user's ability to feel with them and control them will be vast improvements over anything currently available. The Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program is spread over 30 different organizations, including 10 universities across Canada, Europe, and the United States: the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, is working on signal processing and pattern recognition for natural arm control; the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, is working on electrodes for brain implants. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, Md., is ”herding the cats,” according to DARPA project manager Colonel Geoffrey Ling, ensuring that these far-flung research partners work together to make the bionic arm a near-term reality. Scientists involved say that this Manhattan Project-like system--on which DARPA has already spent US $30.4 million--is the only way to bring technology this advanced into the world by 2009.

The program was conceived in 2005 to create prosthetic arms that would leapfrog the stagnant hook-and-cable technology that has improved little since World War II. DARPA split the program into two separate projects--one of them a two-year effort that would yield, by 2007, the most sophisticated mechanical arm possible with currently available technologies (that contract went to New Hampshire-based Deka Research and Development Corp.). The international Applied Physics Laboratory, the longer effort, also had a mandate to produce an arm with state-of-the-art mechanics by 2007. Called the Proto-1 this first APL arm, completed in 2007, had approximately eight joints or degrees of freedom.

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
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A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic
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Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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