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What Life Is Like With a Robotic Arm

My bionic arm is a great conversation starter with women—it's like you're always carrying around a puppy.
Photo by VICE Media

This article originally appeared on VICE Austria

When I was 15 years old, my lower right arm was amputated after I was hit by a passing train. For a while, I used a fairly standard myoelectric-controlled prosthetic arm – a device that senses tiny nerve signals in your muscles, which control the arm movement of the prosthetic. Apart from putting forward my left hand instead of the right when greeting someone, I never consciously hid my disability. But thanks to the prosthetic's beige-pink appearance, it didn't stand out in the first place. The classmates in high school to whom I hadn't told what had happened, didn't notice for months that I was using a prosthetic arm. Once, I even had an impromptu sexual encounter with a girl in a narrow train carriage – she wasn't aware that I was wearing a prosthetic arm at all.

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Because my accident happened when I was still pretty young, by the time I was 30, I had gotten used to what I had. I never thought about how prosthetics might have evolved over the years. But when a friendly orthopaedic technician one day in 2016 explained to me just how far the technology had come, I started considering an upgrade.

That upgrade came in the form of a bionic arm. I first had to test a prototype, called "Michelangelo", for a week. It was much more powerful and more intuitive to operate than what I was used to. The bionic arm has 14 different grip patterns, while my previous prosthetic only had one. A few months after trying it out, in May 2016, I finally had the arm permanently fitted. I now walk around with an all-out robotic arm, and people stare at it and want to touch it all the time. It's huge and made of titanium, and it makes me look like I've just stepped out of some kind of science-fiction comic.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Berger

I've had a good first year with the arm, though it's been challenging at times to adjust to the technology. It doesn't come with an instruction manual – you're just left to work out how to move with it by yourself.

But with time, it's become my second nature. I especially enjoy the fact that the more subtle handiwork has become so much easier for me to deal with, thanks to this new arm. Tying my shoelaces, for example, isn't so hard anymore – the fingers on this robotic hand are much larger and have greater dexterity than on my old one. I also discovered that my new arm has an auto-grip function that can sense when you're about to drop something, so it adjusts your hold.

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Apart from all the practical functions, there's the added bonus that I'm a great source of entertainment for all the children I meet – many of them flip out when they think they've spotted a real-life robot. But it's not just children – doctors also get excited when they see me. When I recently had to go into hospital with a small fracture in my left wrist, a bunch of medics swarmed around me to catch a glimpse of the cyborg. It wasn't long until they started asking if they could take a picture with me.

The same thing happened when I attended an Anime Con in Brussels, at a gaming convention in Germany and at a meeting of parliamentary representatives in the mountains in Tyrol. I can't tell you on how many profile photos of strangers I appear online.


**Watch: **The prostheses of the future


The arm is a great conversation starter with women – it's like you're always carrying around a puppy. During sex I leave the prosthetic on. It honestly wouldn't cross my mind to take it off, because I'm much more mobile with it. My partners don't seem to mind, they just focus on the rest of my body. For two women I've slept with, it actually seemed to be a bit of a turn on – while we were in bed, they wouldn't stop stroking it.

The majority of people I introduce myself to are comfortable around me and positive towards my disability, so much so that it's obvious to spot the few who are uneasy and try to avoid me. Of course people's curiosity is often superficial – they're more interested in the robotic arm than they are in me as a person, but that's fine. For me, I'm just happy to do my part in introducing something new to society, and hopefully put a stop to some people's prejudices against those with a disability.