Million-dollar bionic man built for British TV program
January 31, 2013
Are the famous lines "Gentlemen, we can rebuild him – we have the technology" from The Six Million Dollar Man coming true? Perhaps not entirely, but a new Channel 4 documentary entitled How to Build a Bionic Man will demonstrate the current state of the art in artificial limbs, organs, and even blood, through the construction of a 6-foot tall android. The documentary is set to air on British televisions come February 7, but you can learn about what went into it after the break.
It seems apt that the program should be hosted by Dr. Bertolt Meyer, a social psychologist from Switzerland. Meyer was born without a left hand, and wears an iLimb Ultra, a sophisticated prosthetic hand made by Touch Bionics (the same type used in the android) priced at around US$48,000. Sensors applied to the skin of the residual limb detect muscular movements, which the device translates into hand and finger movements.
Meyer is joined by UK roboticists Richard Walker and Matthew Godden, specialists from the Shadow Robot Company (probably best known for the Shadow dexterous robot hand). They borrowed £630,000 (approximately $1 million) worth of parts to construct the bionic man, which looks at first glance somewhat silly. It may not pass for a person, but it does highlight promising current and future technologies that Gizmag readers are likely familiar with.
Unlike the Geminoids, which attempt to replicate human appearance, or the detailed musculoskeletal robots built at Tokyo University, the bionic man isn't a robot, but features parts that integrate directly with the human body.
What's inside Channel 4's bionic man?
Eye (University of California)
A pair of glasses fitted with a camera transmits images to a microchip inserted directly onto the retina. The retina picks up the implant's electrical pulses, which the brain interprets as shapes and patterns. Although retinal implants have been in development for years, they generally suffer from poor resolution – but the technology continues to evolve.
Ear (Macquarie University, Sydney)
A cochlear implant stimulates nerve fibers in the inner ear, generating signals that can be interpreted by the human brain. Unfortunately the bionic man doesn't really have ears, and has just an internet chat bot program for a brain (so the cochlear implant isn't really being used at all), but you get the idea. It possesses limited artificial intelligence, relying on standard speech recognition and speech synthesis to respond to spoken words.
Heart (SynCardia, Arizona)
More than a thousand patients have received SynCardia's battery-powered artificial heart, but it is still only a temporary solution until a donor can be found.
Pancreas (De Montfort University, Leicester)
An experimental gel-like sack containing insulin that liquifies and hardens to release or retain insulin depending on blood glucose levels. Inventor Joan Taylor (Professor, De Montfort University) believes it is around seven years from general use.
Kidney (University of California)
A silicon nano-scale filtration system powered by the patient's blood pressure, that uses a small bio-reactor containing renal tubule cells from a healthy kidney to perform the job of the real organ. Clinical trials are set for 2017.
Legs (Rex Bionics, New Zealand)
The Rex robotic exoskeleton gives the bionic man its balance and ability to walk. It's one of a handful of devices being developed around the world that augment human strength. Rather than replacing the human legs, it is worn almost like a pair of pants.
Foot and ankle (MIT, Massachusetts)
The iWalk BiOM ankle mimics the actions of the calf muscle and Achilles tendon. It was developed by Professor Hugh Herr, who lost his legs to frostbite in a climbing accident. Unlike the Rex exoskeleton, this is a prosthetic that is designed to take the place of the lower leg.
It seems like we've still got a long way to go before we can say we've seen a real bionic man. Much of this technology is still only experimental, and will take years to fully develop, but the program will raise some of the ethical concerns relating to it. Viewers will be able to meet the bionic man in person at the British Science Museum's Who Am I? gallery from February 7th to March 11th.