What does the latest development in prosthetic technology mean for the future?
Much has been made of prosthetic technology in the news of late particularly with viral videos of Darth Vader and Tony Stark giving artificial appendages to school children saturating the web. The developments in 3D printing have certainly allowed manufacturers to customise the design of replacement limbs in new and exciting ways but recent research being conducted in Australia has the potential to revolutionise the industry to an even greater extent.
Scientists at the University of Melbourne have created a “minimally invasive brain-computer interface device, which is potentially practical for long term use” according to Terry O’Brien, head of its Department of Medicine and Neurology in a statement to the Huffington Post. This device, called a stentrode, would be the size of a matchstick and capable of detecting and converting neutron signals from the brain into electrical commands. It is thought that in the future this will allow a paralysed person to control a bionic limb or wheelchair in a way that had previously only been imagined in works of science fiction.
The significance of this development is not only the ability of the stentrode to access and convert brain signals but the relatively non-invasive way in which it will be able to do so. At the moment, there is a method for accessing brain signals but it involves complicated neurosurgery and the results of this procedure become significantly less effective over a period of just a few months. The stentrode on the other hand will be able easily injectable into a patient’s neck and placed in a blood vessel near the brain. The actual process of patients learning to interact with the device is said to be akin to learning to play music.
What makes this technology even more impressive is that according to Clive May from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health the device has the potential to allow a person to communicate through a computer. This could be a very exciting or frightening development as this development and the prospect of transferring consciousness into a machine or computer seem relatively close. Several works of fiction including the popular anime series Ghost in the Shell and the recent film Chappie have imagined the consequences of such technology. These stories animate the plethora of possible results ranging from the end of the world to the prospect of immortality.
For now, these long term effects can remain in our imagination as the stentrobe will only begin its human testing phase next year. There is still a lot of work to be done before it will be readily available to people, with early estimates suggesting that it won’t be around for at least a decade so stay tuned for more to come.
Original feature image by Natalie Foss