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Bionic Arms Developed At U Move Science-Fiction Into The Realm Of Fact

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- This story may sound like science-fiction, but it's actual reality, and it's being created in Minnesota.

We've all seen the images based on fantasy, like Luke Skywalker or the Terminator, of bionic beings. But now, thanks to a few dime-sized chips sitting in the University of Minnesota's engineering lab, fantasy is reality.

It comes in the form of a robotic arm that's made for people who've lost their own, like Cameron Slaven who lives in Texas.

"It was pretty horrible, it was factory incident," Slaven said. "I was working with a machine and it basically crushed up my hand and part of my arm and they had to amputate."

He heard about a trial at the U of M with Jules Anh Tuan Nguyen and his professor Zhi Yang; they started the research 10 years ago in Singapore.

"They are amazing. The work they are doing is out of this world, bordering miraculous," Slaven said.

Slaven had been frustrated with current electrical arms that are controlled by muscles that have to be triggered by him, making certain movements difficult. The ones created at the U are connected to nerves.

"The computer and the mind interact with each other, understand each other, and that will result with the patient (being) able to control the prothesis in a natural way. So, it's a natural movement; they can move their natural arm with just their brain," Nguyen explained.

They use artificial technology similar to the kind that does facial recognition to interpret what the brain is saying and tell the hand what to do.

Nguyen says the new technology reads the patient's mind, and fast. The brain sends info to a neuro-interface. It's translated with AI and then the hand moves, and it all happens in 10 milliseconds.

After about ten trips to the Twin Cities, it happened for Slaven. Nguyen says it was emotional for all.

"We call it 'five-finger day,' that's the day we had it working properly," he said.

Also a day that gave Slaven improved mobility -- and hope.

"It was just so exciting and so fun to be a part of that, it really was. I don't know another word. But its bigger than that. There's fun and reassuring and it's exciting and that's just on the emotional level," Slaven said. "It's just great, it's great. In one word, it's just great."

The technology is just catching on and the hope is the industry will catch up.

"We were joking that it's going to cost you an arm and a leg," Nguyen says. "At least $100,000 per model."

For now, though, they will keep experimenting with people like Slaven, whose fantasy is already becoming reality.

"I don't know how to say thank you enough that they are trying and that they are making leaps and bounds," Slaven said.

Anyone interested in joining the study Slaven is a part of in the future can reach out to Edward Keefer or call 858-205-0206.

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