Shaking hands with an augmented human

1st May 2015 by Felix Jackson

I had a real moment last week on my way out of the Royal College of GPs after the #WIREDHealth event. I had the opportunity to talk to Nigel Ackland, who has a ground-breaking, myoelectric, prosthetic right fore-arm. He had told his story to an audience of more than 300 people at the conference earlier that day.

A story of pain and frustration: pain following a terrible industrial accident, frustration with the inadequate prosthetics that he was originally given (starting with just a hook). He tells an incredible story, one that clearly illustrates what being a patient can really mean.

He now has RSL Steeper's bebonic3 which is a myoelectric prosthetic arm that he controls by moving the muscles that remain in his forearm. For him, this is completely life-changing. Interestingly, he has learnt to move his fingers in ways that were not programmed by the engineers by unconsciously sending combinations of commands to his new hand. Some of these new movements he learnt consciously, but at least one he just discovered he could do, although the prosthetic engineer said it shouldn't be possible!

He told me that he just feels his phantom fingers move and then watches as a few moments later the prosthetic hand moves in turn. While showing me how his arm works and what improvements could be made, Nigel quickly detached his hand to show me the wrist joint. This sent weird alarm bells in ringing in my brain because, as I was essentially perceiving his hand as normal, twisting it and pulling it off his wrist was not something my brain had been prepared for!

It was nice to see that on pointing this out to Nigel he had not realised this perspective before, thinking that it was only him who could perceive what is effectively his 'phantom limb'. For me, this was a real moment because I remember telling my interviewers for medical school about my interest in cybernetics and how I wanted to develop a prosthetic human hand that would be indistinguishable from a real human hand.

Although my interests have wandered off into digital communications, shaking hands with Nigel was a real-life moment that touched one of my dreams. A dream that had been brought into Nigel's real-life by the engineers at RSL Steeper.