Smart prostheses go beyond replacing damaged limbs to integrate with increasingly human behavior. Credit: Omkaar Kotedia/The Alternative Limb Project.

  • Innovation


From "augmented" humans to intelligent prostheses capable of feeling and communicating with the human body, the collaboration between neuroscience and technology has blurred the limits of bionics to change our lives.

ISABEL RUBIO | Tungsteno

Neil Harbisson, the first person in the world recognised as a cyborg by a government, hears colours. An antenna implanted in his skull since 2004 allows him to perceive red, blue or yellow in the form of vibrations as if they were musical notes. This is the only way he has to differentiate them because he suffers from achromatopsia (colour blindness), a congenital disease that only allows him to see in white, black and grey. Like him, more and more people are inserting technology into their bodies to overcome different limitations or increase their physical or sensory capabilities.

For example, Spanish dancer Moon Ribas has sensors integrated into her feet that allow her to receive seismic information in the form of vibrations. In this way, she is able to turn tremors into dance. Meanwhile, artist Manel Muñoz has implanted a device in his head that captures the changes of force exerted by the atmosphere and translates them into vibrations with the aim of predicting the weather.

Subcutaneous chips are already accepted as a travel ticket by the Swedish company SJ. Credit: SJ.

Implanted devices for electronic payment

Implants, prostheses, chips and advances in neuroscience and technology are bringing the bionic man closer to reality, and on many occasions, they make life easier for those who wear them, although they also give rise to debates about privacy. In Sweden, some 4,000 citizens have an electronic device implanted under their skin that they use as a key, change purse or access card to the gym and even to work. The devices, which use Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, are usually inserted in the hand between the thumb and index finger.

The possibilities that open up when these chips are embedded in the body are endless. They can be used to obtain products from a vending machine or to validate a train ticket with a single movement of the hand. In fact, the Swedish state railway company SJ was the first transport company in the world to allow chips to be used as tickets. If their use were extended to all businesses, leaving your keys at home or forgetting your wallet or ID would no longer be a problem.

Whether for making payments or for entering events, multiple companies are also experimenting with other technologies. In 2018, about 100 people entered the OFFF (International Creativity Festival) with electronic tattoos that adhere to the skin created by the School of Design and Engineering of Barcelona. "This device adapts to the texture of the skin in an innocuous way thanks to a complex technology condensed in an extra-thin sheet," explained the organisation.

Advances in neuroscience and technology have been able to create prostheses with sensory capacity. Credit: Naked Prosthetics.

Prostheses with sensory capacity

Most devices developed to make life easier or to overcome certain limitations offer more and more features. For example, prostheses allow each finger to be moved individually and heavy objects to be held, but they still have limitations. Although prosthesis wearers can develop good control with practice, they often cannot feel what the artificial limb is doing. This limitation makes it necessary to constantly look at the prosthesis when wearing it. To solve this problem, different studies have worked on making these devices more sophisticated. Two women with an amputated forearm have recovered sensations very similar to reality with their prosthesis, according to a study published last February in the journal Science Robotics.

The World Health Organization estimates that there are at least 100 million people in the world who need prostheses, and expects this figure to increase in the coming years with the increase in the number of older people on the planet. This is the case of Hugh Herr, an engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had an accident in the mountains when he was 17, leading to the amputation of both his legs. Frustrated by the lack of functionality of the first prostheses he was offered, he decided to design them himself. In 2016 he won the Princess of Asturias Award for Scientific and Technical Research for the bionic prostheses he spent nearly two decades designing.

There are also multiple initiatives that aim to give these people back their limbs. Revolutionizing Prosthetics is a project developed in 2006 at Johns Hopkins University and funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that seeks to promote research on this type of device for upper limbs. And there are even organisations that deliver 3D printed prostheses for free. E-Nable, an international NGO founded in the United States, has already provided more than 1,500 artificial hands to people around the world.

Prosthetics and chips are just a few of the thousands of devices currently being developed to provide users with new capabilities. For example, a team of researchers at the University of San Diego, California, has developed robotic contact lenses that allow users to zoom in on things with their vision by blinking through small muscle movements. There are also scientists who are trying to create bionic eyes and ears to grant the ability to see and hear to those without it. All these inventions share the possibility of changing the lives of thousands of people.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

  • Tungsteno
  • Neuroscience
  • Bionic humans

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