Birth of the Bionic Man


Lee Majors
Cover of Lee Majors

By Carl Weiss

“Astronaut Steve Austin, a man barely alive.  But we can rebuild him.  We have the technology.”

Or so the story goes in the TV series starring Lee Majors that ran from 1974-1978.  The stuff of fiction in the 20th century, during the past few years many of the innovations portrayed in the original series have gone from science fiction to science fact.  There are now such things as prosthetic arms and hands with tactile
sense, rudimentary bionic eyes that help the blind see, and cochlear implants that help the deaf hear.  While we don’t yet have the ability to equip amputees with fully functional legs that can go from zero to sixty in five seconds, we can offer robotic exoskeletons that can help paraplegics regain the ability to walk on their own.  Plus there are other man/machine concepts that are either in the prototype phase or on the drawing board that can amp up the capabilities of us mere mortals.  In this week’s blog, we will take a look at these technologies, as well as the ramifications of enhanced human beings who will soon make Colonel Austin seem as antiquated as much of the technology of the 1970s.

Medical Bionic Implants/Artificial Organ Market (Vision Bionics/Bionic Eye, Brain Bionics) Worth $17.82 Billion by 2017 - New Report by Markets and Markets

The medical bionic implant (artificial organs) industry has witnessed a myriad of technological advancements over the past two decades.  It includes vision bionics, ear bionics, orthopedic bionics, heart bionics, and neural/brain bionics. Medical bionics in pipeline include wearable artificial kidney, bio-lung, and artificial pancreas.  http://www.prweb.com/releases/medical-bionic-implant/market/prweb11241748.htm

Bionic Limbs Will One Day Sense Textures Under Human Feet

English: Photograph of the implanted portion o...
English: Photograph of the implanted portion of a cochlear implant. The specific device shown is manufactured by Advanced Bionics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It sounds like something straight out of science fiction: artificial limbs that not only move, flex, and feel like their flesh counterparts, but also respond directly to one's thoughts and even translate sensory feedback -- the feeling of grass beneath one's feet or the sensation of a limb floating in space -- straight back to the brain.
Thanks to an aggressive push in funding from the US military in an effort to the improve the lives of injured veterans, those advancements are no longer such farfetched dreams. While the idea of "Blade Runner"-level prosthetics is still a far-off fantasy, impressively capable, thought-controlled bionic limbs are now a modern-day reality thanks to pioneering research between the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), DARPA, and a growing sector of companies developing the next generation of artificial limbs.


Artificial heart: JARVIK-7 Heart, provided to ...
Artificial heart: JARVIK-7 Heart, provided to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) by the University of Utah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Devices Will You be Using in Your Golden Years?

With an aging population and billions of dollars at stake it is obvious that artificial limbs and organs are a growing trend that is the next logical evolutionary step.  While some people have ethical dilemmas with creating replacement parts for the human body, the technology is anything but new.  During the past few decades everything from hip and knee replacements to laser eye surgery has become routine.  Transplant
surgery isn't even considered all that radical a procedure in the twenty first century, although organ
Ekso Bionics Präsentation in Köln (42)
Ekso Bionics Präsentation in Köln (42) (Photo credit: WeissenbachPR)
rejection hasn't quite been licked.  So why not construct replacement parts using all our available technology? If it wasn't for the fact that we couldn't figure out how to connect artificial limbs to our nervous system, Steve Austin's would already be here.  However, according to a recent article in the Wall street Journal, this conundrum could soon be a thing of the past.

“In an advance that could eventually improve the mobility of thousands of people living with amputations, researchers said a 32-year-old man successfully controlled movements of a motorized artificial leg using only his own thoughts.  Aided by sensors receiving impulses from nerves and muscles that once carried signals to his missing knee and ankle, the patient was able to climb and descend stairs and walk up and down inclines much as he could with a natural leg, based on directions that came from his brain. Importantly, he was able to flex the device's ankle, enabling a near-normal gait, something not possible with current prosthetics.” http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304795804579097570008603700

Meet Frank N. Stein

'Bionic Man'
'Bionic Man' (Photo credit: Rain Rabbit)
Of course with nearly two thirds of the human body capable of being simulated by prosthetics it was only a matter of time before someone decided to hardwire them together to create the first artificial human.  The first to attempt the feat was a pair of English researchers.  Amazingly enough, their creation, named Frank, came in not at $6 million mark but only $1 million.  Of course as they say, you only get what you pay for.  No matinee idol, Frank is nonetheless a TV star, since his creation was chronicled on, "The Incredible Bionic Man," premiering Sunday (Oct. 20) on the Smithsonian Channel at 9 p.m. 

The brainchild of robotic pioneers, Rich Walker and Matthew Godden, their bionic man was assembled from a cornucopia of artificial organs and prosthetic body parts that had been donated by labs from around the world.  According to the documentary, Frank was modeled after Bertolt Meyer, a Swiss psychologist who wears a bionic hand.  Of course Frank doesn't stop there.  He also sports everything from a wrist, ankles and feet to an artificial lung, trachea, pancreas, spleen, kidney and heart that pumps artificial blood through an artificial circulatory system.  He also has a brain that purportedly can mimic a number of human functions, including speech recognition and production all of which are assisted by a cochlear implant.  Frank sees courtesy of a retinal prosthesis.

Neural interfaces for prosthetics
Neural interfaces for prosthetics (Photo credit: SandiaLabs)
To support his prosthetic legs, the bionic man wears a robotic exoskeleton dubbed "Rex," made by REX Bionics in New Zealand. His awkward, jerky walk makes him more like Frankenstein than ever. 


While Frank’s abilities are more akin to the Tin Man than Paul Newman, he can carry on a conversation since he comes equipped with a sophisticated chatbot program.  Another thing that makes people want to engage Frank in conversation is the fact that while his body is more stickman than human, his prosthetic face is all too human-like.  In fact, it is an exact replica of Bertolt Meyer.

In previous article, I wrote about bionic technology (like the kind in Star Trek episodes) aka cybernetics’ and augmented reality like wearable tech that can enhance our abilities. These technologies will alter how humans work, live and behave as we adapt to live with enhanced capabilities.
US Navy 110629-N-IE087-206 Rear Adm. Elaine Wa...
US Navy 110629-N-IE087-206 Rear Adm. Elaine Wagner, director of Medical Resources Plans and Policy Division and chief of the Navy Dental Corps, is (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The possibility of having a walking, talking synthetic human does bring up a number of other questions, such as how much body enhancement is socially acceptable?  And what rights will an artificial human being be granted?  While I'm unable to answer these questions, I do have one suggestion.  Why not go right to the horse’s mouth and ask Frank, since he will be on display at the Smithsonian Air and space Museum in Washington, DC through the remainder of the fall season.  Heck, I can think of a number of politicians who could handily be replaced by Frank.  But then that would present our bionic man with a conundrum of his own.

This article discusses how science fiction has ushered in science fact. How many of the artificial bionic devices we dreamnt of in the '50s- '70s are now in use every day. It discusses how the human are embracing the use of cybernetic eyes, ears, limbs and organs. It talks about the creation of the first fully bionic artificial man and its implications on our future. If you liked this article, pass it along to your friends. If you have, a comment or other ideas leave them in the comment section. 

Until next time, enjoy your bionic life. 

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Since 1995, Carl Weiss has been helping clients succeed online.  He owns and operates several online marketing businesses, including Working the Web to Win and Jacksonville Video Production. He also co-hosts the weekly radio show, "Working the Web to Win," every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on BlogTalkRadio.com.


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