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Last Updated: Friday, 3 September, 2004, 10:31 GMT 11:31 UK
The Cyberhand project
However sexy some gadgets may be, we could quite happily live without most of them. But some bits of technology really could change lives. David Reid has been to Italy, to look at the latest in artificial limbs.

Cyberhand in action
Artificial limbs could soon imitate a large number of human actions
Their conversational gestures aside, Italians can turn their hands to some pretty wonderful things.

But if it is manual dexterity you're looking for, you need to go a few kilometres down the road from Pisa.

The Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna, in Pontedera, is the headquarters for Europe's Cyberhand project, which is using the most advanced robotics to develop the next generation of prosthetic hand.

Previous hands could perform only very simple movements. Now, artificial limbs are on their way to imitating a large number of human actions.

The Cyberhand is important not just because of the more complicated tasks users will be able to perform, but also psychologically, for the first time patients will actually be able to feel what they are doing.

Paul Dario, professor of biomedical robotics, Cyberhand project
Professor Dario has been working on improving artificial limbs
Previously patients have been unhappy with artificial hands because they have lacked what you might call "the human touch".

Professor Paolo Dario, professor of biomedical robotics, Cyberhand project, says: "The simple reason is that they do not feel the hand as part of their body.

"Of course the hand is generally not very dexterous, but essentially the real reason is that the artificial hand does not provide the user with sensory feedback.

"So the user is using this hand as an external tool, but not as a part of their bodies or as something connected to the brain."

Revolutionary

Up until now artificial hands were controlled by patients flexing their arm muscles. The Cyberhand will be connected to and controlled by the patient's own nerves.

Certain functions, however will be under the command of a microprocessor - these are automatic responses, such as grasp.

Cyberhand with skin
The Cyberhand's skin can discern texture, impact and temperature
Maria Chiara Carrozza, associate professor of engineering at Cyberhand, explained that this is done in the hand itself, without requiring any intervention of the person.

"The process of reacting to some slippage, for example, is a very, very fast process, so it is not possible to connect this to the intention and to the processing of the person."

The sensors in the Cyberhand's skin are one of the trickiest things to get right, but are also the most revolutionary.

Their distribution is similar to that of real skin, and the sensors can discern texture and detect impact.

The hand will also have thermal sensors - useful for establishing exactly what things are made of.

Professor Dario says: "Our skin is capable of sensing not just whether something is warm or hot, but also to sense material properties based on how much heat, and how fast heat is removed, let's say, from the finger into the material.

"So we feel, even if, for example, we touch an object made out of steel or an object made out of wood, even if they have the same temperature, we feel them differently."

The scientists believe the Cyberhand will be ready for clinical trials in approximately a year.

Then they will know for sure if an artificial hand that looks and feels like the real thing is actually within grasp.


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