The Hype and Hope of Prosthetics

A conversation with engineer Jonathan Kuniholm

| Online Exclusive: July-August 2009

This is part of a series of stories on design and disability from the July-August 2009 Utne Reader. For more read “ Form and Fashion ,” “ Building a Better Arm ,” “ Prosthetic Power ,” and “ The Future of Prosthetics .

Jonathan Kuniholm wants to revolutionize prosthetics. As part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) aptly named Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program, he is one of more than 300 biomedical engineers worldwide who are working to advance prosthetic technology. This ambitious, multi-institutional effort has been likened to the Manhattan Project in its scope.

However, Kuniholm’s vision extends beyond technological innovation. Through his North Carolina-based Open Prosthetics Project, he wants to also advance how prosthetics stakeholders—including amputees, prosthetists, and manufacturers—communicate and share information. The Open Prosthetics Project is an open-source initiative, which means that the freely share their research and prosthetics hardware designs over the Internet and invite the public to use and improve upon them. By expanding their pool of “lead users” in this way, the project aims to accelerate innovation. And as an Iraq war veteran and right arm amputee, Kuniholm has a personal stake in the outcome.

I spoke with Kuniholm about his hopes for advanced prosthetics and the Open Prosthetics Project, as well as how the media feeds the prosthetic hype.

You wrote in your article for IEEE Spectrum that “we need to push the [prosthetic] arm that last mile to the consumer.” How is the work you’re doing pushing the arm that last mile?

Well, first of all I should say that I am only one of over 300 engineers working on the DARPA Project, and I’m not involved in the commercialization plan of that project, so I can’t speak to how that’s going to occur. But I am part of some efforts to maximize the research that we’ve been doing. As I pointed out in the IEEE  article, developing an open standard for the control of the arm, to make the components modular and interchangeable, is part of that effort to lower the cost of innovation and make it easier for change to occur for the consumer.