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Dean Kamen's Cyborg Arm: It's Real and It's Spectacular

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Dean Kamen (the Segway and medical/robot guy)'s new robot arm has been lighting up the internet since last week. There were loads of questions (is it really an arm? Why did he make it? Was the audience actually crying?) but not very many answers. Here are some new details on courtesy of a guy who was there:

Here's what I recall about it. He was approached by Darpa to develop the worlds best prosthetic arm. Our men and women wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve it. We owe it to them.

The General from Darpa gave Kamen basically this blue sky order: I want an arm that's so precise that a person could pick up a grape or a raisin and without looking be able to tell the difference.

At first Dean begged off. It was too hard, it was too resource intensive, DEKA had a lot of other projects on the table. But Dean said he'd go to military hospitals and meet with the people. He met with combat wounded and was so inspired by them and their courage in meeting the challenges of life missing one or two arms that he decided they'd give it the best shot they could.

And so began DEKA's attempt to make the worlds best prosthetic limb, and do it with a very short timetable, to get it to the people who would need it.

Next Dean talked about control for this arm. He talked about brain implants and how bad an idea that was, going inside someone's skull. But then he talked about stem-cell research, and making a small implant that wouldn't be in the brain, but somewhere else in the body, maybe in the shoulder. Something that would be self-contained and communicate with the arm wirelessly. He named a research team at a big university, I forget which one. They were working on the stem-cell part of it. But, he cautioned, it may not work. The stem-cell research might not work, or it might not work in time to put it in this arm. But clearly this was the key to two-way neural contact. Control AND feeling.

So if that didn't work, or not in time, they had a number of other control schemes that they were looking at, and they were all better than the current standard.

At this point, Dean described what current motorized limbs were like. They strapped against a shoulder, and if they moved at all, they're controlled by kind of jamming the opposing shoulder which pulls the strapped limb so that a button gets pressed on it. If they're motorized they have a kind of a hook, or in some cases a cosmetic hand.

These hands are kind of one-size or a couple sizes and a couple of skin colors fit all.

So the first thing on Dean's list was that these would be the best looking prosthetic arms ever. Number one, these arms would match the person. And this would be achieved by taking a cyberscan of the other arm and making an exact mirror image. With nails, skin tone, size, bone size, everything matching. If the person didn't have another arm, a match would be found.

The next thing to tackle would be movement. From the looks of the video, this is coming along nicely. I wonder what the control scheme actually is on this video. I don't know. But I do know that they're shooting the moon.

And I don't think there was a dry eye while he was describing this to us. It was like watching the impossible become real.

Thanks for the update, tipster.