What It’s Like to Live With a Bionic Hand

​Nicky Ashwell was born without her right hand, but that’s never held her back.
October 25, 2016, 2:45pm

Nicky Ashwell was born without her right hand, but that's never held her back. She tried a few different prosthetics in the past—mainly realistic-looking hands or simple hook mechanisms—but found it easier to do most things without them.

Then, in 2015, a man approached Ashwell in the street and asked if she'd be interested in trying out a new kind of prosthetic. Ted Varley, technical director at UK-based Steeper, was looking for someone to be the first user of the Bebionic Small, the latest version of the company's bionic-style hand that's finally a good fit for women. It's one of the most advanced prosthetics currently available for regular users.

The Bebionic has functionality well beyond the kind of prosthetics Ashwell had tried before. It's myoelectric, meaning that it's controlled by signals from the muscles in the arm, which are picked up by electrodes in the prosthetic's socket. The hand cycles through a pattern of grips that open and close on command: One grip is designed to hold something between thumb and forefinger, such as a credit card or key; another makes a pointing gesture; one even forms a pretty serious-looking fist.

The hand is powered by individual motors in each of the fingers, while microprocessors track the motion of each digit to keep them in line. Essentially, it aims to offer movement as close as possible to that of a human hand. Crucially, the hand is smaller than previous iterations, making it the first suitable for most women, teenagers and men with smaller frames.

In this episode of Humans+, we meet Ashwell and discover more about the technology behind the hand and what the prosthetics of the future could look like. While Ashwell appreciates the extra functionality the hand gives her, she's wary of relying too much on technology and the impact that could have on her own sense of identity.

As prosthetics get more advanced, are they purely an assistive device, or could we see them as a human enhancement? And when technology is incorporated into our own bodies, what does that say about the relationship between mankind and machine?