When we’re taking Star Wars tech, Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand isn’t as flashy as, say, lightsabers or X-Wings. It looks and acts just like a normal hand, after all. That’s the point. But while I often joke about wanting to own a real lightsaber (except I’m not joking—I totally want a real lightsaber), even I have to admit that a functional robotic limb that can be controlled by the mind of its wearer is far and away more practical than a sword that’s also a laser.
Which is why it’s so awesome that Jan Scheuermann, 53 years of age and paralyzed from the neck down, now has a robotic arm that she can control just like a normal arm using only her brain.
Scientists implanted two microelectrodes, each with a hundred tiny needles to pick up electrical activity from individual cells, into Scheuermann’s motor cortex. The microelectrodes translate the electrical pulses fired between neurons into commands, which allows Scheuermann to move her robotic arm with “co-ordination, skill and speed almost similar to that of an able-bodied person,” according to the official paper on the study.
Scheuermann learned to use her new arm after just 13 weeks of training, which was much quicker than scientists anticipated. Says University of Pittsburgh professor of neurobiology Andrew Schwartz, who led the study,
“[The arm's movements] are fluid and… way better than anything that’s been demonstrated before. I think it really is convincing evidence that this technology is going to be therapeutic for spinal cord injured people. They are doing tasks already that would be beneficial in their daily lives and I think that’s fairly conclusive at this point.”
As far as artificial hands are concerned, a Luke Skywalker is way better than a Dr. Strangelove. But you haven’t abandoned lightsabers yet, have you, scientists? Please?