First, let me just say that I have every ounce of sympathy for people who have lost limbs, whether in combat or otherwise. And I’m all for using the latest technology to alleviate the suffering of amputees and help them regain their full range of movement. But there are some avenues of research that just shouldn’t be travelled down, no matter what the noble intent, and one of them is studying salamanders to learn how to regrow human limbs.

Scientists working the the US Department of Defense are working on the first steps in this research. They’ve begun by injecting fluorescent dye into the specimens of the highly endangered axolotl salamander. The axolotl, which lives only in the canals surrounding Mexico City, is neotenic, meaning that it spends it’s entire life in a larval state, which allows it to regrow limbs, organs and even parts of it’s brain and spine following injury.

The idea is that, by learning more about how the process works in the axolotl, scientists will eventually be able to apply the process to humans, teaching the body to regrow lost limbs. And as I said before, that’s a noble idea. It is also terribly misguided, and can only end in disaster and heartbreak.

Anyone with a layman’s understanding of comic book and cinematic science can tell you that the mingling of human and animal genetics, especially for the purposes of regrowing limbs, is a horror show waiting to happen. One need look only to the fable of Dr. Curt Connors to see how high the price for a regrown human arm can be. The sad tale of Dirk Benedict in Sssssss only drives home the terrible fate that awaits those who attempt to mix the genetic stuff of man and beast.

As promising as the axolotl research may eventually become, it’s better for all concerned that we continue investing in more immediate benefits borne by advanced prosthetics. We’re at a technological crossroads here, people. Down one path lies cyborgs – down the other, terrible mutants. And frankly, there’s not much room for discussion about which of those is a better scenario.

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Engineering students at Virgina Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory  have crafted a super-sensitive robotic hand prototype that would have Darth Vader green with envy. The artificial hand, nicknamed RAPHaEL, is sensitive enough to grip an egg and demonstrates the digital dexterity required for communicating in sign language. It’s powered by a 60 psi air compressor, allowing it to eschew complicated parts like motors. In addition to making the hand simpler and easier to maintain, this also drives the cost of the cost of the robot limb way down. And it’s accordion style actuator and air flow controls allow for the designs award winning dexterity and let it follow the contours of objects it’s gripping more easily and accurately.

Meanwhile, researchers in Germany are taking a different approach to developing increased touch sensitivity in robots.  They’re applying a new generation of strain gauges, each about half the width of a human hair and printed with nanoparticles designed to detect and react to minute changes in pressure, to the tactile surfaces of robots working underwater on oil derricks or other projects. The hope is that the increased tactile sense will allow robots to more accurately sense their environment and guide themselves autonomously in treacherous underwater work situations.