By now, I’m sure most of you have seen a video making its rounds on social media, and even 9gag, about a guy with a robotic arm that he built in a garage to help him overcome the limitations of his paralysed left hand. Sounds amazing right?
Yeah, we think this sounds too good to be true. Here’s why.
I Wayan Sutawan, affectionately referred to as Tawan, suffered a minor stroke six months ago which paralysed his left arm. Because he’s a mechanic of sorts, one can imagine that having a paralysed left hand can be quite a cumbersome thing. So, rather than sit around and whine about it, Tawan set to work and in two months created a robotic arm out of spare parts he had around his workshop.
He can control the robot arm via a headband around his forehead that picks up his brain signals and allows him to control the arm movement accordingly. Based on the video, not only can he lift objects and move his arm around, he can also pick up and hold on to rather delicate objects.
So why do we think this miraculous feat has more in common with the Boy Who Cried Wolf than it does with Iron Man?
1. A brainwave-controlled robotic arm
That means the body part — the muscles, the nerve cells, the tendons and ligaments — are perfectly functional, there is just nothing telling them to move. So, if it’s the brain that can’t issue the command, how then can his “brainwave detector” — that looks like a bunch of LEDs strapped around his head with duct tape — detect the brainwaves issued by a part of the brain that no longer functions?
Plus, even if that contraption around his head could pick up the brainwaves from dead/damaged braincells that can no longer issue commands via a human’s regular nervous system, where on earth did he store the processor needed to make sense of those brainwaves (or even identify the correct ones) and translate them into mechanical motor functions? How did he develop such sophisticated programming? What kind of supercomputing power is being used to digest all that data?
2. A lack of actuators to control finger movements
While the motors and the hydraulics for the upper segments of the arm could possibly pass off as motors to facilitate movement, the glove that controls Tawan’s finer finger movements don’t have any actuators at all. So how could this contraption allow him to make the finger movements necessary to pick up and grip the solder in the video?
Prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the brain aren’t exactly new. Take a look at this article by The Guardian on a DARPA-funded research project for robotic arms that can feel. What the scientists at Johns Hopkins university Applied Physics Laboratory did was have the electrodes from the prosthetic hand inserted into his sensory and motor cortexes so that he could not only control the hand with thought, he could also feel and sense when his “fingers” were touched.
Once again, this is proof that in order for your brain to control a prosthetic arm, the necessary cortexes would have to be able to send a signal and function properly first. Another thing to note is that if a project led by the brilliant scientists of Johns Hopkins needed funding from a US military agency like DARPA to succeed, how on earth did Tawan manage to build one himself out of spare parts?
What is more likely is that the man simply has a weak arm that needs some motorised help to actually function properly. In fact, if you pay close attention to his left arm when he is inserting it into his mechanical contraption, you can see his wrist flick upwards before it enters the sleeve.
Everything about this story seems too sketchy to be true. The fact that a simple mechanic from a rural town could just one day up and build something so advanced from spare parts should have raised at least a few flags. Add “brainwave-controlled” to that description and you would have a beautiful script to a story designed for the big screen. You would have Iron Man actually. And Tony Stark doesn’t exist — no matter how hard Elon Musk tries.