Uncle Sam's skunkworks is well on its way to creating a prosthetic hand like the one Luke Skywalker received in "The Empire Strikes Back." The prosthetic allows the person equipped with it not only to move the robotic hand but to feel sensations on the individual fingers.
After researchers at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University implanted electrodes in the brain of a 28-year old volunteer paralyzed by a spinal cord injury, he was able to control the motion of the arm and could sense when people in the lab touched different fingers on the prosthetic hand.
"At one point, instead of pressing one finger, the team decided to press two without telling him,” DARPA program manager Justin Sanchez, who oversees the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, said in a statement. “He responded in jest asking whether somebody was trying to play a trick on him. That is when we knew that the feelings he was perceiving through the robotic hand were near-natural.”
People watching the prosthetics space will naturally see this news as part of a longer continuum of progress. In 2012, "60 Minutes" reported on a DARPA breakthrough that (you guessed it) enabled people to move robotic limbs with their minds.
Earlier, DARPA's Revolutionary Prosthetics program also funded the development of another prosthetic arm at DEKA Research. The latest version of the DEKA arm, pictured below, was created with the help of 35 volunteer amputees who participated in a Department of Veterans Affairs study.
What's new with the robo-hand from Johns Hopkins is the capacity to send a user direct biological feedback to his or her brain from sensors on its fingers.
“We’ve completed the circuit,” Sanchez said in a statement on Sept. 11. “Prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by thoughts are showing great promise, but without feedback from signals traveling back to the brain it can be difficult to achieve the level of control needed to perform precise movements. By wiring a sense of touch from a mechanical hand directly into the brain, this work shows the potential for seamless bio-technological restoration of near-natural function.”
Even if we are still years away from these advanced prosthetics entering mainstream use, the arm we saw in a galaxy far, far away is now much closer to becoming a reality: