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Around 1.9 million people in the US are currently living with limb loss. The trauma of losing a limb is just the beginning of what amputees have to face, with the sky-high cost of prosthetics making their circumstance that much more challenging.
Prosthetics can run over $50,000 for a complex limb (like an arm or a leg) and aren’t always covered by insurance. As if shelling out that sum one time wasn’t costly enough, kids’ prosthetics need to be replaced as they outgrow them, meaning the total expense can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A startup called Unlimited Tomorrow is trying to change this, and using cutting-edge technology to do so. Based in Rhinebeck, New York, a town about two hours north of New York City, the company was founded by 23-year-old Easton LaChappelle. He’d been teaching himself the basics of robotics and building prosthetics since grade school (his 8th grade science fair project was a robotic arm) and launched his company in 2014.
After six years of research and development, the company launched its TrueLimb product last month, describing it as an affordable, next-generation prosthetic arm using a custom remote-fitting process where the user never has to leave home.
The technologies used for TrueLimb’s customization and manufacturing are pretty impressive, in that they both cut costs and make the user’s experience a lot less stressful.
For starters, the entire purchase, sizing, and customization process for the prosthetic can be done remotely. Here’s how it works. First, prospective users fill out an eligibility form and give information about their residual limb. If they’re a qualified candidate for a prosthetic, Unlimited Tomorrow sends them a 3D scanner, which they use to scan their residual limb.
The company uses the scans to design a set of test sockets (the component that connects the residual limb to the prosthetic), which are mailed to the user. The company schedules a video meeting with the user for them to try on and discuss the different sockets, with the goal of finding the one that’s most comfortable; new sockets can be made based on the information collected during the video consultation. The user selects their skin tone from a swatch with 450 options, then Unlimited Tomorrow 3D prints and assembles the custom prosthetic and tests it before shipping it out.
“We print the socket, forearm, palm, and all the fingers out of durable nylon material in full color,” LaChappelle told Singularity Hub in an email. “The only components that aren’t 3D printed are the actuators, tendons, electronics, batteries, sensors, and the nuts and bolts. We are an extreme example of final use 3D printing.”
Unlimited Tomorrow’s website lists TrueLimb’s cost as “as low as $7,995.” When you consider the customization and capabilities of the prosthetic, this is incredibly low. According to LaChappelle, the company created a muscle sensor that picks up muscle movement at a higher resolution than the industry standard electromyography sensors. The sensors read signals from nerves in the residual limb used to control motions like fingers bending. This means that when a user thinks about bending a finger, the nerve fires and the prosthetic’s sensors can detect the signal and translate it into the action.
“Working with children using our device, I’ve witnessed a physical moment where the brain “clicks” and starts moving the hand rather than focusing on moving the muscles,” LaChappelle said.
The cost savings come both from the direct-to-consumer model and the fact that Unlimited Tomorrow doesn’t use any outside suppliers. “We create every piece of our product,” LaChappelle said. “We don’t rely on another prosthetic manufacturer to make expensive sensors or electronics. By going direct to consumer, we cut out all the middlemen that usually drive costs up.” Similar devices on the market can cost up to $100,000.
Unlimited Tomorrow is primarily focused on making prosthetics for kids; when they outgrow their first TrueLimb, they send it back, where the company upcycles the expensive quality components and integrates them into a new customized device.
Unlimited Tomorrow isn’t the first to use 3D printing for prosthetics. Florida-based Limbitless Solutions does so too, and industry experts believe the technology is the future of artificial limbs.
“I am constantly blown away by this tech,” LaChappelle said. “We look at technology as the means to augment the human body and empower people.”
Image Credit: Unlimited Tomorrow Continue reading
In just half a decade, neuromorphic devices—or brain-inspired computing—already seem quaint. The current darling? Artificial-biological hybrid computing, uniting both man-made computer chips and biological neurons seamlessly into semi-living circuits.
It sounds crazy, but a new study in Nature Materials shows that it’s possible to get an artificial neuron to communicate directly with a biological one using not just electricity, but dopamine—a chemical the brain naturally uses to change how neural circuits behave, most known for signaling reward.
Because these chemicals, known as “neurotransmitters,” are how biological neurons functionally link up in the brain, the study is a dramatic demonstration that it’s possible to connect artificial components with biological brain cells into a functional circuit.
The team isn’t the first to pursue hybrid neural circuits. Previously, a different team hooked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one into a circuit using electrical protocols alone. Although a powerful demonstration of hybrid computing, the study relied on only one-half of the brain’s computational ability: electrical computing.
The new study now tackles the other half: chemical computing. It adds a layer of compatibility that lays the groundwork not just for brain-inspired computers, but also for brain-machine interfaces and—perhaps—a sort of “cyborg” future. After all, if your brain can’t tell the difference between an artificial neuron and your own, could you? And even if you did, would you care?
Of course, that scenario is far in the future—if ever. For now, the team, led by Dr. Alberto Salleo, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, collectively breathed a sigh of relief that the hybrid circuit worked.
“It’s a demonstration that this communication melding chemistry and electricity is possible,” said Salleo. “You could say it’s a first step toward a brain-machine interface, but it’s a tiny, tiny very first step.”
The study grew from years of work into neuromorphic computing, or data processing inspired by the brain.
The blue-sky idea was inspired by the brain’s massive parallel computing capabilities, along with vast energy savings. By mimicking these properties, scientists reasoned, we could potentially turbo-charge computing. Neuromorphic devices basically embody artificial neural networks in physical form—wouldn’t hardware that mimics how the brain processes information be even more efficient and powerful?
These explorations led to novel neuromorphic chips, or artificial neurons that “fire” like biological ones. Additional work found that it’s possible to link these chips up into powerful circuits that run deep learning with ease, with bioengineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.
As a potential computing hardware replacement, these systems have proven to be incredibly promising. Yet scientists soon wondered: given their similarity to biological brains, can we use them as “replacement parts” for brains that suffer from traumatic injuries, aging, or degeneration? Can we hook up neuromorphic components to the brain to restore its capabilities?
Buzz & Chemistry
Theoretically, the answer’s yes.
But there’s a huge problem: current brain-machine interfaces only use electrical signals to mimic neural computation. The brain, in contrast, has two tricks up its sleeve: electricity and chemicals, or electrochemical.
Within a neuron, electricity travels up its incoming branches, through the bulbous body, then down the output branches. When electrical signals reach the neuron’s outgoing “piers,” dotted along the output branch, however, they hit a snag. A small gap exists between neurons, so to get to the other side, the electrical signals generally need to be converted into little bubble ships, packed with chemicals, and set sail to the other neuronal shore.
In other words, without chemical signals, the brain can’t function normally. These neurotransmitters don’t just passively carry information. Dopamine, for example, can dramatically change how a neural circuit functions. For an artificial-biological hybrid neural system, the absence of chemistry is like nixing international cargo vessels and only sticking with land-based trains and highways.
“To emulate biological synaptic behavior, the connectivity of the neuromorphic device must be dynamically regulated by the local neurotransmitter activity,” the team said.
Let’s Get Electro-Chemical
The new study started with two neurons: the upstream, an immortalized biological cell that releases dopamine; and the downstream, an artificial neuron that the team previously introduced in 2017, made of a mix of biocompatible and electrical-conducting materials.
Rather than the classic neuron shape, picture more of a sandwich with a chunk bitten out in the middle (yup, I’m totally serious). Each of the remaining parts of the sandwich is a soft electrode, made of biological polymers. The “bitten out” part has a conductive solution that can pass on electrical signals.
The biological cell sits close to the first electrode. When activated, it dumps out boats of dopamine, which drift to the electrode and chemically react with it—mimicking the process of dopamine docking onto a biological neuron. This, in turn, generates a current that’s passed on to the second electrode through the conductive solution channel. When this current reaches the second electrode, it changes the electrode’s conductance—that is, how well it can pass on electrical information. This second step is analogous to docked dopamine “ships” changing how likely it is that a biological neuron will fire in the future.
In other words, dopamine release from the biological neuron interacts with the artificial one, so that the chemicals change how the downstream neuron behaves in a somewhat lasting way—a loose mimic of what happens inside the brain during learning.
But that’s not all. Chemical signaling is especially powerful in the brain because it’s flexible. Dopamine, for example, only grabs onto the downstream neurons for a bit before it returns back to its upstream neuron—that is, recycled or destroyed. This means that its effect is temporary, giving the neural circuit breathing room to readjust its activity.
The Stanford team also tried reconstructing this quirk in their hybrid circuit. They crafted a microfluidic channel that shuttles both dopamine and its byproduct away from the artificial neurons after they’ve done their job for recycling.
Putting It All Together
After confirming that biological cells can survive happily on top of the artificial one, the team performed a few tests to see if the hybrid circuit could “learn.”
They used electrical methods to first activate the biological dopamine neuron, and watched the artificial one. Before the experiment, the team wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Theoretically, it made sense that dopamine would change the artificial neuron’s conductance, similar to learning. But “it was hard to know whether we’d achieve the outcome we predicted on paper until we saw it happen in the lab,” said study author Scott Keene.
On the first try, however, the team found that the burst of chemical signaling was able to change the artificial neuron’s conductance long-term, similar to the neuroscience dogma “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Activating the upstream biological neuron with chemicals also changed the artificial neuron’s conductance in a way that mimicked learning.
“That’s when we realized the potential this has for emulating the long-term learning process of a synapse,” said Keene.
Visualizing under an electron microscope, the team found that, similar to its biological counterpart, the hybrid synapse was able to efficiently recycle dopamine with timescales similar to the brain after some calibration. By playing with how much dopamine accumulates at the artificial neuron, the team found that they loosely mimic a learning rule called spike learning—a darling of machine learning inspired by the brain’s computation.
A Hybrid Future?
Unfortunately for cyborg enthusiasts, the work is still in its infancy.
For one, the artificial neurons are still rather bulky compared to biological ones. This means that they can’t capture and translate information from a single “boat” of dopamine. It’s also unclear if, and how, a hybrid synapse can work inside a living brain. Given the billions of synapses firing away in our heads, it’ll be a challenge to find-and-replace those that need replacement, and be able to control our memories and behaviors similar to natural ones.
That said, we’re inching ever closer to full-capability artificial-biological hybrid circuits.
“The neurotransmitter-mediated neuromorphic device presented in this work constitutes a fundamental building block for artificial neural networks that can be directly modulated based on biological feedback from live neurons,” the authors concluded. “[It] is a crucial first step in realizing next-generation adaptive biohybrid interfaces.”
Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay Continue reading
Inside the Race to Build the Best Quantum Computer on Earth
Gideon Lichfield | MIT Technology Review
“Regardless of whether you agree with Google’s position [on ‘quantum supremacy’] or IBM’s, the next goal is clear, Oliver says: to build a quantum computer that can do something useful. …The trouble is that it’s nearly impossible to predict what the first useful task will be, or how big a computer will be needed to perform it.”
We’re Not Prepared for the End of Moore’s Law
David Rotman | MIT Technology Review
“Quantum computing, carbon nanotube transistors, even spintronics, are enticing possibilities—but none are obvious replacements for the promise that Gordon Moore first saw in a simple integrated circuit. We need the research investments now to find out, though. Because one prediction is pretty much certain to come true: we’re always going to want more computing power.”
Flippy the Burger-Flipping Robot Is Changing the Face of Fast Food as We Know It
Luke Dormehl | Digital Trends
“Flippy is the result of the Miso team’s robotics expertise, coupled with that industry-specific knowledge. It’s a burger-flipping robot arm that’s equipped with both thermal and regular vision, which grills burgers to order while also advising human collaborators in the kitchen when they need to add cheese or prep buns for serving.”
The Next Generation of Batteries Could Be Built by Viruses
Daniel Oberhaus | Wired
“[MIT bioengineering professor Angela Belcher has] made viruses that can work with over 150 different materials and demonstrated that her technique can be used to manufacture other materials like solar cells. Belcher’s dream of zipping around in a ‘virus-powered car’ still hasn’t come true, but after years of work she and her colleagues at MIT are on the cusp of taking the technology out of the lab and into the real world.”
Biggest Cosmic Explosion Ever Detected Left Huge Dent in Space
Hannah Devlin | The Guardian
“The biggest cosmic explosion on record has been detected—an event so powerful that it punched a dent the size of 15 Milky Ways in the surrounding space. The eruption is thought to have originated at a supermassive black hole in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, which is about 390 million light years from Earth.”
Star Trek’s Warp Speed Would Have Tragic Consequences
Cassidy Ward | SyFy
“The various crews of Trek‘s slate of television shows and movies can get from here to there without much fanfare. Seeking out new worlds and new civilizations is no more difficult than gassing up the car and packing a cooler full of junk food. And they don’t even need to do that! The replicators will crank out a bologna sandwich just like mom used to make. All that’s left is to go, but what happens then?”
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