This research being conducted at the University of Chicago could be a major advance in robotics and prosthetic technology. Amputees today have no way to “feel” their prosthesis except to watch it as it moves. Someday in the not too distant future, amputees with prosthetic hands may gain the sense of touch.
Using monkeys, the researchers first identified specific areas of the brain that corresponded with their fingers. Then the scientists connected electronic strain gages in the prosthetic hand to those specific areas in the brain. Using software, the scientists were able to successfully identify a “contact event” at the prosthetic hand from the monkey’s brain and to create a sense of pressure.
An important next step would be to control the prosthetic hand with the brain and to be able to apply force with feedback so the brain can sense what and with how much force the hand is touching.
The research work was partially funded by the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is well-known for sponsoring high risk, long term research activity. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in large numbers of U.S. military amputees, creating an ongoing and increasing need for improved prosthetic technologies.
Takeaways: There are non-obvious sources of funding early technology development work. DARPA is a great example but there are plenty of others. In the government, NIH, CDC, and NSF have ongoing research grant programs. There are other military programs as well, for example, TATRC. Yes, there is competition for these grant dollars so you need to make a strong case for the technology and the problems it solves. There is also the possibility that the researchers have no intention of commercializing their technology. In that case, it is possible for a company to license and commercialize the technology on its own.