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Wednesday, July 28, 1999 Published at 18:33 GMT 19:33 UK


Computers winning artificial arms race

A computer chip could help amputees control artificial arms

It can take months for a patient to learn to use an electronic artificial limb, but a computer advance could cut that to a few minutes.

Japanese research, reported in "New Scientist" magazine, has come up with a system which adapts the responses from the limb to every different user.

Most amputees can move some muscles in the remaining part of the limb, and the electric signals they produce to do this can be harnessed to operate the electronic limb.

However, the difficult part is training the brain to control the new limb in this way.

Computer programme evolves

The computer chip designed by Isamu Kajitani at the University of Tsukuba is described as "evolvable hardware".

It is claimed that this produces new ways of handling the electronic information from the user's muscles until the most efficient way is reached.

In effect, it learns what the user wants it to do.

And if muscle wastage means that the signals change over time, the device changes the way it interprets the electronic data.

So far the chip has only been tested in computer simulations, but the team is looking for volunteers to start human trials.

The scientists are using a robot hand which can be moved in a variety of ways, and the eventual aim is to produce a far more manoevrable limb.

Mr Kajitani said: "We are now working on a hand with five fingers that can be moved independently.

"This should be strong and dextrous enough to open a can of soda."

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