Talk to the Hand: Nicolas Huchet explains how making his own prosthetic hand humanises technology
Nicolas Huchet from France lost his right hand in a work accident as a young mechanic. He founded My Human Kit, a non-profit, to improve the design of an open-source prosthetic hand, so that amputees all over the world can afford to build their own bionic hands. He talks to RTD about rising up to the challenge, the intimate relationship between human beings and technology, and whether he is a pioneer of transhumanism.
“This is Michelangelo!” waves Nicolas Huchet, introducing his prosthetic hand. When it’s switched on, it’s noisy, whirring like the engine of a particularly loud toy car. The battery-operated limb is covered in a flesh-coloured silicone glove and doesn’t look obviously artificial. Michelangelo doesn’t move its five fingers independently, but it works, enabling Nicolas to pour himself a glass of wine and to talk with his hands - important features to a Frenchman. Made by a private company, the artificial hand has been fully certified.
It’s main downside though, is its price: 40,000 euro. A pipe-dream for most disabled people around the world. This price tag has worked like a red rag to a bull on Nicolas, sending him on a 10-year technological quest for the best open-source bionic hand design. A quest which has made him value humanity all the more.
Nicolas Huchet chose to become a mechanic when he was 15. “I wasn’t very good at school and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.” Still, he enjoyed repairing his moped, and mechanics was the only area that appealed to him. He started off in maintenance of heavy industrial machinery the following year. A rather passive role, and a far cry from his childhood hero, MacGyver, the 1980s TV series inventor who “could make a helicopter using a ventilator”.
For the first 10 years after the work accident that cost him his right hand aged 22, Nicolas had to make do with the simple prosthetic hand provided by public health insurance. The myoelectric design hadn’t changed since the 1970s. It worked like a pincer, and that was that. “It was frustrating because new prostheses were appearing and I couldn’t afford one and it wasn’t covered [by Social Security], so I felt frustration, anger even against our society where you always need money to buy yourself things.”
In 2012, Nicolas pushed the door of the FabLab in Rennes, Brittany, where he lived. FabLabs, short for fabrication laboratories, are community workshops with computers where “Makers” can build objects, for instance using a 3D printer. “We didn’t invent a prosthetic, we were inspired by a robot whose blueprint was available on the internet, the InMoove hand,” invented by designer Gaël Langevin. The FabLab team then worked with Nicolas to turn the robot into a proper prosthetic hand, which could move its five fingers.
How failure gave Nicolas Huchet his mission
Once it was built, things didn’t go according to plan however. “I realised that I couldn’t do anything with it.” Although Nicolas could move his fingers and shake hands to say hello, “I couldn’t pick up a pen, because it requires precision,” he explains. “It’s not really practical, it’s not certified, there are no mechanical norms, it’s not sturdy, it’s not waterproof.” It turns out expensive commercial prosthetics are expensive for a reason.
Failure didn’t put him off.
Getting his dream handmade helped the mechanic reconnect with reality: “You know in life you see an advert on TV, you see a thing, and you want it and as long as you don’t have it, you want it, and then the day that you get it, that’s when you see all its defects.”
“That’s why I told myself I wanted to continue to make the project evolve, all the same,” he adds. The French mechanic discovered that “all over the world, there are guys who have 3D printed hands and are trying to make prosthetic hands.”
Nicolas founded a non-profit, to help disabled people make all kinds of objects that solve the problems there are facing. My Human Kit employs seven people, including Nicolas and provides a HumanLab, a kind of FabLab where autistic people, wheelchair users and others can come and make something that they need, “but doesn’t exist or is too expensive.”
The team works with researchers, companies and volunteers. Nicolas acts as an advocate for disabled people and networks to bring those with different kinds of expertise together. As a result, the quest for the perfect hand isn’t the only task on his agenda.
Why the perfect bionic hand doesn’t move all five fingers
Nevertheless, Nicolas hasn’t given up. On the way, he’s picked up Michelangelo and he’s trying to produce an open-source version of the blueprint, to make it much more affordable.
Surprisingly, the aim isn’t a robotic hand that moves five fingers. “the thing is, it requires more technology for the fingers, and that’s more expensive, and we don’t want it to be expensive.” Nicolas has tried a prosthesis that moves fingers and his verdict is that it’s an unnecessary flourish:
Gestures for which one finger is used, such as cleaning your ear or keying a code on your computer, are things that you only need to do rarely, or that can be done in other ways. “It’s better to make a hand that is easy to manufacture and easy to use, and that would be accepted by the maximum number of people, than to make an ultra-robotic prosthetic of the future which will be ultra-expensive and that no one will have,” he explains.
According to Nicolas Huchet, the perfect hand must be “easy to use, light, quick, it must look pretty[...] and be easy to repair.” It must also be small, to fit children and those with small hands. “Women’s hands are much smaller than men’s, so you need to bear that in mind. This hand,” Nicolas waves Michelangelo around, “is much too big for a woman.”
The mechanics of a hand that can do useful things are complex. “You need extremely ingenious mechanics to make the thumb move in a certain way, and the hand must be able to open wide, but also close. It’s as though the hand is a car’s gearbox and the thumb is the stick.” The hand must be made with “lightweight materials such as aluminium or carbon, and they cost a lot of money. You also have to work out a motor that has enough speed, and then make a protective glove which will be pretty, and that’s not easy to make either.”
Why technological progress can’t exist in a vacuum
Can future technological progress deliver the perfect hand? For Nicolas Huchet, “technological advances such as batteries becoming smaller, so they can easily fit in the prosthetic, and also feedback on sensation, such as captors placed on the skin, in order to develop the sense of touch, that’s interesting. Apart from that, everything that you need already exists.”
The biggest obstacle is money. Silicone for gloves is expensive. Even if blueprints are available for free, the machinery that makes hands is very sophisticated so collaboration with for-profit companies that own such machines is needed. Professional input is also irreplaceable: “A prosthetics specialist must fit the hand to the person’s arm”, he points out.
Having a simple open-source design isn’t just about price, however. It also makes repairs easier. “I didn’t have my prosthesis for two weeks because it had broken down. That’s why I want to make my own, because when they break down you have to wait a long time. For a DIYer like myself, it’s better to have an instruction manual, so you can repair it yourself.”
Nicolas’ work is all about partnership. He collaborates with a local company that is developing artificial hands, with a research centre in southern France that works on sensors, among others. “In Europe, I know all the best research centres and companies. I have all the cards in hand to be successful.” Before the coronavirus epidemic drove France to a standstill, he was aiming to have bring out one prototype with the local company in June and maybe another one by the end of 2020.
He is also in touch with others abroad trying to develop artificial hands that are appropriate for their own context. Prashant Gade is an Indian engineer with his own dream of designing an affordable hand for India’s large disabled population. The two visionaries give each other feedback remotely and work on their projects independently, but Prashant visited France last year and Nicolas has been to India. He points out that “the situation is really different there, you can’t compare.” What makes a hand perfect is as much a socio-economic question as a technological one.
For Bionico, transhumanism is just human nature
Losing his hand has given the mechanic a newfound respect for technology, since it’s when you make something that you realise the complexities involved. “It’s very difficult to design and to adjust, to reproduce movements whose complexity we underestimate,” he points out. “Design isn’t easy, because even if you’re going to make it later, you are still starting out in front of a computer screen inventing something without really knowing where you’re going,” he confesses. “I greatly admire inventors because it requires a lot of skill and intelligence. Technology is useful in lots of ways, it’s not all bad.”
His nickname is “Bionico”, but he doesn’t consider himself a transhuman, pioneering the merging of man and machine that represents the next stage in human development for all of humanity, according to the theorists of transhumanism.
For him, transhumanism is about merging body and machine to augment the body as far as possible, whereas disabled people just want to get back the capacity they have lost. He compares the transhumanist goal to “going to live on Mars and building houses there, when there are people who would like to have a home on Earth.” Bionico is concerned with those who need a prosthetic, so transhumanism isn’t high on his list of priorities.
"I have nothing against transhumanism,” he insists. “I think humans need to go out there to look elsewhere for answers, like transhumanism, in order to realise that the best is already within you: it’s your body, your soul, your spirit, your brain.”
“Technology can give us extra options such as flying, that’s the positive side, but there will be also negatives,” he argues. Transhumanism isn’t a way to escape the limitations and the ambivalence of the human condition: “So you have your wings, you can fly that's amazing, that’s a crazy dream, but who will it get it? Only a tiny proportion of the population.” According to Bionico, “human beings are made for exploration, to go push boundaries, it’s normal.” However, he cautions, “it can’t just be the crazy dream of a megalomaniac who decided he wanted to be enhanced! Well if it’s his dream, good for him, but it’s got to be done respectfully.”
Jumping the barrier of rock n’roll
In recent years, Nicolas Huchet has pushed against one particular personal boundary. As a teenager, he dreamt of playing the drums, but self-doubt held him back. Perversely, it was only after losing his hand that he found the self-confidence to give it a go. A recent highlight was playing the drums on Taratata, a famous French TV music show. “Some people watched it and didn’t notice at all that the drummer only had one hand.”
It took him 10 years of honing his drumstick attachment to get there. “It’s not a hand, the difference is that my arm is moving, I don’t need a sensor, it’s just a thing that’s tight on the arm.” A drumstick needs to be inserted into the attachment, with an adjustable angle and a rubber element that gives it a kick. Nicolas didn’t change his way of playing. “I didn’t want to adapt!” he wails. He tried various solutions for years but the sticks kept on breaking. “I just wanted to put on the prosthesis and put in my drumstick.” He’s happy with his current drumming attachment. Now, he’s looking for bands to play with.
Losing his hand has made Nicolas Huchet particularly aware of the limits and barriers that human beings experience. For him, “the limit is something we can’t go beyond, like the edge of a cliff, whereas the barrier is the thing that stops us from getting close to the cliff.” Barriers are really personal fears.
Now his mission is encouraging others, with or without physical disabilities, to push through their fears in order to accomplish their dreams.