In a key scene in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker has his hand chopped off, and before the movie’s over, he has a fresh, robotic one in its place. This is no longer the stuff of fantasy—researchers at Tel Aviv University, in conjunction with a team of EU scientists, have created an artificial hand that can “feel.”
Prof. Yosi Shacham-Diamand of TAU's Department of Engineering worked with the EU scientists to create what they call the “SmartHand.” They successfully wired the device to existing nerve endings in the stump of a severed arm, and the subject, Robin af Ekenstam of Sweden, took it for a “test run.” The results were astounding. In addition to performing tasks like reading and writing, Ekenstam claims to be able to “feel” objects. Says, Ekenstam, “I am using muscles which I haven't used for years. I grab something hard, and then I can feel it in the fingertips, which is strange, as I don't have them anymore. It's amazing.”
According to Prof. Diamand, “Perfectly good nerve endings remain at the stem of a severed limb…after only a few training sessions, he [Ekenstam] is operating the artificial hand as though it's his own…we've built in tactile sensors too, so the information transfer goes two ways.”
The SmartHand isn’t as responsive as Luke’s robotic hand, but it’s a terrific start. Imagine the possibilities—improved quality of life for amputees, the military applications (which are boundless). See below for video.