Holy Crap, This Guy's Got Two Mind-Controlled Robot Arms!

Great news, everyone! We're one step closer to the Ghost in the Shell future we've been promised since 1995. Leslie Baugh has become the first shoulder-level double amputee to receive a pair of robotic arms. And the best part is, they're mind-controlled.

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Baugh lost both arms in an electrical accident four decades ago. image: APL

They're called Modular Prosthetic Limbs (MPL) and have been under development at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) for more than a decade. While other patients are already using the limbs, this marks the first time that two have been successfully used in unison.

Using the limbs required Baugh to undergo targeted muscle reinnervation, a surgery that shifts the nerves that used to control your arms and hands into your pectoral muscles where their electrical signals are picked up through the harness on which the arms are mounted.

"It's a relatively new surgical procedure that reassigns nerves that once controlled the arm and the hand," Johns Hopkins trauma surgeon Albert Chi, M.D. told Design Boom "by reassigning existing nerves, we can make it possible for people who have had upper-arm amputations to control their prosthetic devices by merely thinking about the action they want to perform."

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Controlling robotic arms isn't as easy as it sounds though. Baugh had to train extensively using custom software from JHU that not only taught him how to use the arms with a virtual model but also utilized pattern recognition software to calibrate the arms to Baugh's tendencies.


Unfortunately, the arms aren't allowed to leave the APL research lab just yet, but the university is confident they'll soon be ready for real-world. [JHU - Design Boom - Pop Sci - Rice University]



As a biomedical engineer who got into the field specifically for this purpose, I tell everyone who gets giddy about these developments that more often than not, the end users prefer a solid, 'dummy' prosthetic, rather than this mind-controlled one. The reason is because these smart, capable prosthetics do not offer enough feedback, and the users fear that they will move the arm a way in which they did not intend (like squeezing something too hard).

We ought to be investing time and energy into stem-cell research, so these patients can regrow their own arms, which can be re-attached, and unlike prosthetics, will never be rejected by the human body.