Today’s prosthetics are more advanced than ever, serving a wider range of functions and needs while simultaneously costing less to develop. Accident victims and amputees can reliably work with medical professionals to find a perfect fit to accommodate their needs – and, while their lives’ may never go back to the way things were, they can usually regain at least some functionality.
In the future, hyper-advanced robotics are expected to serve as prosthetics. These limbs and other body parts could be controlled with the mind and possibly exceed baseline human capabilities – maybe even such that able-bodied humans would volunteer to have them installed.
So how far can prosthetics truly develop, and will robotic prosthetics one day become commonplace? If so, when?
Appearance and realism
First, we should note the improvements in prosthetics’ appearance. It’s possible to modify your looks in many ways, including with prosthetics and accessories that either blend with your natural appearance as seamlessly as possible or, on the other end, flaunt themselves in some way. For example, you could replace missing teeth with custom gold grillz that highlight their artificial nature. Or if you need to repair damaged skin tissue, you might be able to utilize a skin-like material such as liquid latex.
Thanks to a combination of lifelike materials and technologies like 3D scanning and printing, your image shouldn’t be much of an issue; by the time we develop robotic prosthetics that completely mimic human limb functionality, we should be able to make them look and feel much like the real thing.
From substitution to replication
What could a “robotic” prosthetic do? You might picture a robotic hand like Luke Skywalker’s at the end of The Empire Strikes Back – something that looks and works exactly like a human hand would. However, early prosthetics (and some current prosthetics) are more concerned with providing functionality than they are with replicating something that already exists.
For example, 100 years ago, someone missing a leg might have relied on a simple, stick-like appendage to balance their weight on more than one leg. Today, the most advanced prosthetics aren’t shaped nor function like a human leg and ankle. Instead, they serve a specific purpose, like allowing someone to run, and take whatever form is most appropriate for that purpose. In the case of running, for example, that’s a purely mechanical curved blade that acts as a kind of spring.
From this perspective, robotic prosthetics may not be a practical necessity, especially when you consider how much time, research, and effort it would take to make them fully functional. While you can move your fingers or legs with minimal thought or effort, the biomechanical structures responsible for those movements are incredibly complex. Your bones, tendons, muscles, and ligaments all work together in response to complex signals sent by your nervous system. This presents two challenges: creating a limb that can move in such a complex way, and creating a limb that can respond to mental relays.
Key challenges in robotic limb development
First, we would have to address the challenges of modern robotics as they relate to complex movement. Robots suffer from a lack of refinement, even for tasks a human might consider easy. For example, they have trouble exerting the “right” amount of pressure; a robotic hand might squeeze so lightly that the object it’s trying to grip slips out of its grasp or so hard that the object breaks. Researchers are innovating new ways to account for this, including creating some kind of feedback system with many different types of sensors, but it’s going to be many years before all the kinks are worked out.
There’s also the problem of connecting a limb to someone’s body or mind in a way that allows them to control it the way they would a natural limb. New technologies like Neuralink are starting to develop brain-machine interfaces that allow human beings to control machines using only their thoughts – but this, too, will need many years of development before it can be used for anything, much less have the control of a complex, human-like limb.
Even if we can solve these problems, there’s still the challenge of cost to consider. Once the technology is freely available, the costs of production and fitting will likely be prohibitively expensive, putting robotic limbs out of reach for the majority of the population for much longer.
So how long before we all have access to robotic prosthetic limbs? Optimistically, we might see the emergence of complex, human-like appendages within the decade. But for them to become cost-efficient and commonplace, it’s going to take much, much longer. In the meantime, we can be grateful for the highly effective prosthetics that we already have.
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