CWRU’s Human Fusions Institute melds man and machine with high-tech prosthetics
CLEVELAND, Ohio – They can feel it, just as their subjects now feel other things: the cutting edge of human-tech interaction.
Already, staff at the Human Fusions Institute are zeroing in on the ideal prosthetic, a robotic limb that not only functions like a human hand but also provides natural sensation.
No longer, in other words, are advanced attachments the stuff of futurist dreams or science fiction. At Case Western Reserve University, they’re as real as real can be.
“It’s kind of a mind-shift that we’re creating,” said Dustin Tyler, director of the Human Fusions Institute, an organization based at CWRU but composed of specialists all over the country. “The paradigm of how we interact with these things is changing.”
The difference Tyler is describing is akin to the chasm between the rotary phones of the 20th century and today’s smartphones. Where older prosthetics are little more than mechanical tools – glorified “tongs,” to quote one HFi member – the hands in development at the HFi are highly advanced structures.
They plug into one’s nervous system, fundamentally blurring the line between man and machine. They provide sensory feedback, and operate naturally. Users can’t yet feel temperature or pain, but they can feel pressure and enjoy a sense of touch refined enough to notice a pin-prick. It’s not just a simulated feeling, either. It’s the real feeling.
That’s not all. Much like advanced hearing aids, the prosthetics at HFi do more than just relay external data. They also convince the brain it’s communicating with flesh and blood. This prompts the mind to fill in sensory gaps, thereby rounding out the touch experience and providing a sense of physical wholeness.
Most prosthetic wearers are “vitally aware that they don’t have a limb, and that they are somehow different,” said Fehmida Kapadia, director of innovation and ecosystem at the HFi.
Wearing one of these advanced units, however, she added, “You might not feel exactly how you would feel, but our tech makes those sensations more real. You can touch things, you can feel things. You can do just about everything…”
No less remarkable is that such prosthetics need not be attached to a body to function. In a recent lab test, a student in Cleveland used HFi technology and a virtual-reality headset to make a robotic hand in Los Angeles delicately pick up a banana there, without damaging it.
This opens a world of potential applications beyond prosthetics. Even as it concentrates on restoring limbs, the HFi also foresees revolutions in military work and the fields of healthcare, gaming, and engineering.
Using HFi technology, a physician could safely and humanely examine an infectious patient from another room – or another country. Similarly, family members anywhere could virtually hold that patient’s hand.
Experts also could defuse bombs from a distance and gamers could engage with realistic, immersive environments. Elements now seen in “The Matrix,” “Star Wars,” and other science fiction films would be in use by real people all over the globe. Hence the HFi’s insistence on considering the potential ramifications on society of every step it takes.
“We’re at the point where reality is setting in,” Tyler said at a recent presentation about the HFi. “We can actually do this work…Now we can digitize experience.”
At the same time, he added later, “[w]e don’t let technology be the deciding factor. You have to put ethics in from the beginning.”
For some, of course, the reality of HFi’s technology set in long ago, and already has revolutionized their lives.
Take Brandon Prestwood, of Hickory, North Carolina. In early 2017, five years after losing his left hand in an industrial accident, he was outfitted with a prosthetic at the HFi. He now reports feeling not only physically whole but a whole new sense of purpose in life as well.
The most precious sensation to return was that of holding his wife’s hand, but a close second was that of forgetting that he’s even missing a limb in the first place. In lieu of phantom fingers, he now senses the reality of a fully functioning, high-tech hand.
“When I put the system on and it’s working, it makes me complete again,” Prestwood said. “My mind accepts it as ‘This is what my left hand feels like.’ It gives me back my sense of being complete.”
Just as important, to Prestwood, is the effect his involvement at the HFi has had on his self-image. From a man “mortally crushed” after his accident, unsure of his future, Prestwood through his prosthetics work has emerged as a man with a mission.
By demonstrating his hand for wounded veterans and volunteering as a test subject for new models, Prestwood said he knows he’s doing more than gaining access to cutting-edge technology. He’s helping others, doing his part to improve life for whole generations of people just like him.
“[Tyler] already saved my life,” Prestwood explained. “Now I want to take that and be useful to somebody else. Now I have this opportunity…I can’t wait to take this to the next level.”
That next level is not far off. New technologies are already in development at the HFi and studies that would support their use are planned or underway.
Currently, Prestwood said he isn’t allowed to use the touch component of his prosthetic full-time, but that could change soon, pending federal approval. He imagines one day owning a hand agile and responsive enough to play piano. When that day comes, he vows to take lessons.
The HFI, meanwhile, is moving forward with an advanced prosthetic that entails no external wiring, and developing a shot bearing a chip that would turn a Bluetooth-capable smartphone into a communication hub between brain and arm.
Tyler said he’s convinced these technologies will come to fruition in the not-too-distant future. Furthermore, he said, if they’re ever going to materialize, they’re going to do so in Northeast Ohio, a region he described as uniquely positioned to shatter barriers between people and technology.
“We have all the fundamental pieces,” Tyler said. “We just need to bring them together…We can be the leaders. We can own this. If we put our energy into it, we can make it happen.”