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Design: A Look into the Future of Prosthetics

I had the pleasure of hearing industry pioneer Gerald Loeb, MD, speak last night about the future of prosthetics and robotics. He spoke at Stuart Karten Design in Marina del Rey, CA. Loeb, who is a professor of biomedical engineering at USC, is one of the original developers of the cochlear implant. "I have no patience with technology that isn't well designed, and I've seen a lot of medical technology that is badly designed," he said. The desire of designers to solve the big problems can get in the way of, he said.

Those problemsâEUR"make the deaf hear, make the blind see, and make the lame walkâEUR"are all loft goals. "Making the deaf hearâEUR"we've done that. Making the blind seeâEUR"that may or may not be feasible. Making the lame walk? That may be the wrong goal," he said. What is possible, he said, is working with the upper extremities using tiny injectable neurostimulators to activate weak and paralyzed muscles. "We needed to get rid of the wires,"he said. The BIONs, which Loeb invented, can create functional movement. To do this, he said, you need to coordinate a feedback system and you need signal processing. Applications include stroke patients, flexural contractures, and osteoarthritis. Loeb also talked about some exciting advances in biomimetic tactile sensing, replicating the skin's ability to feel in the fingers of prosthetic hands. Using an array that consists of a rigid core surrounded by a salt water, a sensor in the finger pad becomes part of the transduction process. Like the cochlear implant, Loeb said it may take years before people really start to notice these breakthroughs, but one day I suspect that a tactile sensing prosthetic will be the norm for patients who have lost their arms.

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