Prosthetics That Restore Feeling: Person or Property?

Traditional prosthetic limbs allow amputees to walk, dance, and hold objects, but all while relying heavily on vision. To hold an object with a traditional prosthetic, a person must visually determine where and with how much force to grasp the object without dropping or crushing it.

But in the last few months, there has been a breakthrough in prosthetic technology at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburg Medical Center. Scientists there have discovered how to communicate what a prosthetic is touching directly to a person’s brain, allowing the person to vaguely identify feeling. This biomedical device is called a Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL). It is an arm and hand combination, and it has over 100 sensors that record vibrations, temperature, torque, and contact to send to the user’s brain.

The device was tested on a patient in a lab at Pittsburg by inserting electrodes into his brain. The electrodes received sensor inputs from the MPL as electric signals, and the patient’s brain interpreted these signals as touch sensations. At this stage, it takes several weeks for the brain to adjust to the inserted electrodes, so the device will not be available commercially in the near future. Aside from that, the technology is still far too unreliable. But devices like the MPL have the potential to significantly improve the lives of amputees.

If prosthetic limbs can feel just like normal limbs, are they property, or an extension of the person? Currently, harm to prosthetics is considered property damage. But since the goal of the MPL is to wholly restore the lost functions of an actual limb, it might follow that it could be recognized as part of the user’s body. Consequently, any damage to the limb might be considered a personal injury.

This categorization would lead to valuation issues. As machinery, the cost of a damaged prosthetic can be determined by market prices of all materials used in creating the prosthetic. Measuring the worth of damage to somebody’s hand or arm is much more difficult, and has the potential to vary based on the injured party’s livelihood, age, and a number of other factors.

While the development of the MPL and similar technologies will inevitably raise such questions in the personal injury and product liability worlds, the benefits they provide to people will significantly outweigh the costs of determining their legal standing.


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