On Friday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave its nod to a futuristic prosthetic arm that uses a small on-board computer to turn muscle contractions in the wearer's severed arm into delicate motions in the robotic limb.
Known as the DEKA arm—and nicknamed the “Luke” arm after Luke Skywalker from Star Wars—the prosthetic can make 10 specific movements, says Reuters. That's not a huge range, but it's certainly a step up from the manipulative abilities of a hook or claw or other immobile replacement limbs. The DEKA arm is separated from existing myoelectric prosthetics (prostheses that turn muscle contractions into motion) by being able to perform more than one motion at a time.
The DEKA arm is certainly not at the forefront of engineering technology when it comes to prosthetics—other arms exist that give wears a rudimentary sense of touch. Of course, there are wonderful technological and engineering innovations going on in labs and workshops around the world all the time. Yet until they're shown to be safe and approved by the government for sale, they'll likely never be seen out in the world. The DEKA arm is the first myoelectric prosthetic that can do multiple motions at once that has been approved by the FDA, says Reuters.
The advanced arm is certainly flashy and could potentially be very liberating for those who can afford to use it. But as Rose Eveleth points out for PBS's Nova Next, the most futuristic prosthetic limb is not always the best choice:
Prosthetic technology is certainly advancing rapidly, but there’s a catch. For most people, these state-of-the-art devices are neither attainable, nor well suited for day-to-day life. In fact, for the average person, something far simpler is often in order.
...It’s easy to watch video clips of dexterous and dynamic prostheses and think, who wouldn’t want that? But there are plenty of circumstances in which prescribing such a device would be a misunderstanding of what a patient really needs. In one study that explored the needs of amputee farmers, the researchers interviewed a man who was given a myoelectric arm—something that is not only expensive, but also completely unsuited for farm work. Myoelectric devices cannot get wet or dirty, two things that are nearly guaranteed during a day of farming. The farmer in question simply kept the arm in his closet—a $100,000 device sitting there gathering dust.
The DEKA arm was funded heavily by the Department of Defense, and while it could be a great option for injured veterans, it's unlikely that they, unlike Luke Skywalker, would be able to take their new arms back into battle.