Prosthetic limb delivers realistic feeling to amputees thanks to new AI algorithm

Researchers developed the algorithm to transform prosthetics into an 'extension of the body'

Anthony Cuthbertson
Friday 27 April 2018 14:14 BST
Researchers from the University of Illinois hope to embed the algorithm in existing prosthetics, such as Psyonic's bionic arm
Researchers from the University of Illinois hope to embed the algorithm in existing prosthetics, such as Psyonic's bionic arm (Psyonic)

Prosthetic limbs packed with sensors and electronics could soon help amputees experience realistic touch sensations, thanks to the creation of a new algorithm.

Researchers at the University of Illinois unveiled a control algorithm this week that they claim delivers significantly more reliable electrical feedback to nerve endings than current prosthetic technologies.

“Commercial prosthetics don’t have good sensory feedback,” said Aadeel Akhtar, a PhD student at the university who led the development of the algorithm.

“We’re giving sensation back to someone who’s lost their hand. The idea is that we no longer want the prosthetic hand to feel like a tool, we want it to feel like an extension of the body.”

The problem with advanced prosthetics that are currently available to amputees, according to the researchers, is that the wear and tear on sensors can cause disruption to signals for the wearer.

In some cases, electrode erosion or the build up of sweat can even lead to painful electric shocks.

By introducing the control algorithm to an electronic prosthetic - or bionic limb - signals are moderated and adjusted accordingly in case electrodes and sensors are damaged or partially removed.

“What we found is that when we didn’t use our controller, the users couldn’t feel the sensation anymore by the end of the activity,” Mr Akhtar said.

“However, when we had the control algorithm on, after the activity they said they could still feel the sensation just fine.”

The researchers now plan to carry out more tests on amputees and to continue to develop the module that houses the control algorithm so that it can fit inside a prosthetic arm.

Aadeel Akhtar, a PhD student at Illinois, developed a control algorithm to give prosthetic arm users reliable sensory feedback. (Brian Stauffer)

The eventual aim is for the module to be embedded in prosthetics at a low cost that can be covered by insurance, meaning users do not bear the brunt of the cost.

“Although we don’t know yet the exact breakdown of costs, our goal is to have it be completely covered by insurance at no out-of-pocket costs to users,” Mr Akhtar said.

“We want our users to be able to reliably feel and hold things as delicate as a child’s hand. This is a step toward making a prosthetic hand that becomes an extension of the body rather than just being another tool.”

The research is published in the journal Science Robotics.

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