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Bionic Hand

The big picture

1 min read

It’s got an embedded computer, a rechargeable battery, and five small dc motors. It costs US $18 500. And it can do things most other prosthetic hands just can’t, like grabbing a paper cup without crushing it, turning a key in a lock, and pressing buttons on a cellphone. The fingers of Touch Bionics’ iLIMB Hand are controlled by the nerve impulses of the user’s arm, and they operate independently, adapting to the shape of whatever they’re grasping. The hand can also do superhuman tricks, like holding a very hot plate or gripping an object tirelessly for days. A skin-tone covering gives the bionic hand a lifelike look, but some customers prefer semitransparent models, to proudly flaunt their robotic hands. ”They like the Terminator look,” says Touch Bionics CEO Stuart Mead.

See more photos and videos at IEEE Spectrum’s robotics blog, Automaton,

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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