Grasp and manipulation have captivated the imagination and interest of thinkers of all stripes over the millennia; and with enough reverence to even attribute the intellectual evolution of humans to the capabilities of the hand [1, 2, 3]. Simply put, manipulation function is one of the key elements of our identity as a species (for an overview, see ). This is a natural response to the fact that much of our physical and cognitive ability and well-being is intimately tied to the use of our hands. Importantly, we have shaped our tools and environment to match its capabilities (straightforward examples include lever handles, frets in string instruments, and touch-screens). This co-evolution between hand-and-world reinforces the notion that our hands are truly amazing and robust manipulators, as well as rich sensory, perceptual and even social information.
It then comes as no surprise that engineers and physicians have long sought to replicate and restore this functionality in machines—both as appendages to robots and prostheses attached to humans with missing upper limbs . Robotic hands and prostheses have a long and illustrious history, with records of sophisticated articulated hands as early as Gottfried ‘Götz’ von Berlichingen’s iron hand in 1504 . Other efforts [7, 8, 9, 10, 11] were often fueled by the injuries of war [12, 13, 14, 15] and the Industrial Revolution . The higher survival rate in soldiers who lose upper limbs [17, 18] and the continual emergence of artificial intelligence [19, 20] are but the latest impetus. Thus, the past 20 years have seen an explosion in designs, fueled by large scale governmental funding (e.g., DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics and HAPTIX projects, EU’s INPUT and SOFTPRO projects) and private efforts such as DeepMind. A new player in this space is the potentially revolutionary social network of high-quality amateur scientists as exemplified by the FABLAB movement . They are enabled by ubiquitously accessible and inexpensive 3D printing and additive manufacturing tools , collaborative design databases (http://www.eng.yale.edu/grablab/openhand/ and others), and communities with formal journals (http://www.liebertpub.com/overview/3d-printing-and-additive-manufacturing/621/ and http://www.journals.elsevier.com/additive-manufacturing/). Grassroots communities have also emerged that can, for example, compare and contrast the functionality of prosthetic hands whose price differs by three orders of magnitude (http://www.3dprint.com/2438/50-prosthetic-3d-printed-hand).
For all the progress that we have seen, however, (i) robotic platforms remain best at pre-sorted, pick-and-place assembly tasks ; and (ii) many prosthetic users still prefer simple designs like the revered whole- or split-hook designs originally developed centuries ago [24, 25].
Why have robotic and prosthetic hands not come of age? This short review provides a current attempt to tackle this long-standing question in response to the current technological boom in robotic and prosthetic limbs. Similar booms occurred in response to upper limb injuries  after the Napoleonic , First  and Second World Wars , and—with the advent of powerful inexpensive computers—in response to industrial and space exploration needs in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s [27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32]. We argue that a truly bio-inspired approach suffers, by definition, from both gaps in our understanding of the biology, and technical challenges in mimicking (what we understand of) biological sensors, motors and controllers. Although biomimicry is often not the ultimate goal in robotics in general, it is relevant for humanoids and prostheses. Thus, our approach is to clarify when and why a better understanding of the biology of grasp and manipulation would benefit robotic grasping and manipulation.
Similarly, why is our understanding of the nature, function and rehabilitation of biological arms and hands incomplete? Jacob Benignus Winsløw Jacques-Bénigne Winslow, (1669—1760) noted in his Exposition anatomique de la structure du corps humain (1732) that ‘The coordination of the muscles of the live hand will never be understood’ . Interestingly, he is still mostly correct. As commented in detail before , there has been much work devoted to inferring the anatomical, physiological, neural and cognitive processes that produce the upper limb function we so dearly appreciate and passionately work to restore following trauma or pathology. We argue, as Galileo Galilei did, that mathematics and engineering have much to contribute to the understanding of biological systems. Without such a ‘mathematical language’ we run the risk, as Galileo put it, of ‘wandering in vain through a dark labyrinth’ . Thus, this short review also attempts to point out important mathematical and engineering developments and advances that have helped our understanding of our hands.
This review first contrasts the fundamental differences between engineering and neuroscience approaches to biological robotic systems. Whereas the former applies engineering principles, the latter relies on scientific inference. We then discuss how the physics of the world provides a common ground between them because both types of systems have similar functional goals, and must abide by the same physical laws. We go on to evaluate how biological and robotic systems implement the necessary sensory and motor functions using the dramatically different anatomy, morphology and mechanisms available to each. This inevitably raises questions about differences in their sensorimotor control strategies. Whereas engineering system can be designed and manufactured to optimize well-defined functional features, biological systems evolve without such strict tautology. Biological systems likely evolve by implementing ecologically and temporally good-enough, sub-optimal or habitual control strategies in response to the current multi-dimensional functional constraints and goals in the presence of competition, variability, uncertainty, and noise. We conclude by exploring the notion that the functional versatility of biological systems that roboticists admire is, in fact, enabled by the very nonlinearities and complexities in anatomy, sensorimotor physiology, and neural function that engineering approaches often seek to avoid. […]