The One Hundred Million Dollar Arm

Following the crash of his aircraft, an astronaut’s life hangs in the balance. Until, that is, scientists proclaim, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”

It’s the stuff of a made-for-TV movie: a man is “rebuilt” with a right arm, both legs and a left eye of “bionic” implants. For $6 million… apparently $6MM went a long way in 1973.

Fast-forward to today. RIGHT NOW. Up the price tag a little, and save for the implanted eye, we DO have the technology.

Sunday’s 60 Minutes (shame on you if you haven’t watched this news mag since the ‘70s) profiled Dr. Geoffrey Ling’s Pentagon program called “Revolutionizing Prosthetics,” that has partnered with master inventor Dean Kamen to create a truly revolutionary prosthetic arm.  (Watch the video)

You have to see it to believe it: the DEKA arm is an engineering marvel that allows amputees to control a “bionic” hand from their shoe, allowing them enough control to lift a Coke bottle to drink and pick a grape from a bunch without crushing it—much more impressive than bulldozer strength, if you ask me.

The best part? It’s already headed to the VA for clinical testing with the hope it will soon replace the standard-issue hook for nearly 200 arm amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Or, maybe the best part is that the project doesn’t end here. Ongoing research is focused on connecting the artificial limb straight into the nervous system. 60 Minutes talked with a biomechanical engineer and amputee who can control a prototype arm connected to the bundle of nerves in his arm.

By THINKING about moving his lost hand. Whoa.

It’s a matter of teaching a computer to interpret electrical impulses from remaining muscles. And while it’s not yet ready for clinical testing, it’s hopeful, amazing stuff.

Leg amputees already are benefiting from innovations in robotics, including artificial legs called “Power Knees” that propel themselves to keep a constant stride.

The DEKA arm comes with a price tag of $100MM, which is a considerable improvement in investment from a government notorious for $600 toilet seats.

Yes, it’s taxpayer money. But let me put it into perspective: not only is this investment the least we can do for our vets, but it’s also an investment we make for amputees worldwide.

And maybe that is the best part.