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.

6 thoughts on “The One Hundred Million Dollar Arm

  1. I love how enthusiastic Colonel Ling is in this interview. I wonder if people realize how fantastic this is.

    just an offhand curiosity, does anyone know how heavy the average human arm is? They said the prosthetic had to be 9lbs or less. I have no idea how heavy an arm is, but it for some reason that seems really heavy to me. (again, I’m just curious, I have no idea how heavy arms are.)

  2. I love how enthusiastic Colonel Ling is in this interview. I wonder if people realize how fantastic this is.

    just an offhand curiosity, does anyone know how heavy the average human arm is? They said the prosthetic had to be 9lbs or less. I have no idea how heavy an arm is, but it for some reason that seems really heavy to me. (again, I’m just curious, I have no idea how heavy arms are.)

  3. I think it’s right up there with the space program: most people don’t have a clue. And it makes me so sad. I skimmed the comments of the 60 Minutes page, and there still are people criticizing, both backseat quarterbacking the research and whining about the government spending money. Personally, I think we’re getting considerable bang for $100MM!

    “The total arm mass is given as mean 3.216kg with a standard deviation of 0.464kg
    in Clauser, “Weigth, volume, and center of mass of segments of the human body”, 1969, p.45.” (http://www.ulb.ac.be/medecine/anatemb/biblio/Clauser1969.pdf)

    Which basically meant 7 or 8 lbs. 30 years ago, so 9 probably isn’t unreasonable these days. Who knew?

  4. I think it’s right up there with the space program: most people don’t have a clue. And it makes me so sad. I skimmed the comments of the 60 Minutes page, and there still are people criticizing, both backseat quarterbacking the research and whining about the government spending money. Personally, I think we’re getting considerable bang for $100MM!

    “The total arm mass is given as mean 3.216kg with a standard deviation of 0.464kg
    in Clauser, “Weigth, volume, and center of mass of segments of the human body”, 1969, p.45.” (http://www.ulb.ac.be/medecine/anatemb/biblio/Clauser1969.pdf)

    Which basically meant 7 or 8 lbs. 30 years ago, so 9 probably isn’t unreasonable these days. Who knew?

  5. You’re right, 9 lbs isn’t too far of a stretch, then.

    Unfortunately any money spent on vets is always a hot political issue- even for something as amazing as this. I’m not surprised about the comments.

    Regardless, they are excellent advances. I would love to see it taken further by making the technology lighter, more realistic in feel and response. I’m optimistic that that isn’t too far off. Especially looking at the advances in robotics that is being made. They seem to be working out the biggest hurdle fairly quickly- getting the arm to respond to input from the amputee. THAT’S outstanding.

    Doc Oc, here we come? ;o)

  6. You’re right, 9 lbs isn’t too far of a stretch, then.

    Unfortunately any money spent on vets is always a hot political issue- even for something as amazing as this. I’m not surprised about the comments.

    Regardless, they are excellent advances. I would love to see it taken further by making the technology lighter, more realistic in feel and response. I’m optimistic that that isn’t too far off. Especially looking at the advances in robotics that is being made. They seem to be working out the biggest hurdle fairly quickly- getting the arm to respond to input from the amputee. THAT’S outstanding.

    Doc Oc, here we come? ;o)

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