The prosthetics sported by military veterans and others today are high-tech masterpieces, but they are the evolution of a simple, and age-old, idea. To illustrate that point, the BBC News Health site has gone through the London Science Museum’s wonderful archive of historical medical devices and put together a slideshow of prosthetics dating from seven centuries BCE to the mid-twentieth century. Our favorites: The factory work’s arm with four attachable hammers, the Egyptian toe prosthesis, and the gas-powered arms for a twelve-year-old boy.
The simple act of picking something up requires a plethora of decisions: Is the thing light or heavy? How much force do I need to grip it? If I grip too hard, will I crush it with the might of my mighty hands?
As we grow up we become fairly practiced at the art of picking up (objects, that is), so our brains will do most of this for us without a lot of conscious thought. But all those variables—plus adapting to a surprise on the fly—mean that picking things up with the proper force is one of the most difficult skills to teach a robot. That’s why the design by Eric Brown’s team is so clever.
In this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brown and colleagues demonstrate (paper in press) their “universal gripper,” a successful prototype of a robot hand. It’s based on an idea that’s been around for a while, and it looks like a beanbag on a robot arm, because, well, that’s kind of what it is.