“We can rebuild him. We have the technology…. We can make him better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.” –Oscar Goldman, The Six Million Dollar Man
Long before the premiere of The Six Million Dollar Man in 1974, the idea of a bionic human has fascinated the scientific and science fiction communities. Just turn on the television or take a trip to the local movie theater to find some examples. But there’s a lot more to this burgeoning science than Darth Vader and the Borg. It’s not just science fiction; it’s not even science future. What most people might be surprised to discover is that the kinds of mechanized prosthetics writers used to dream about actually exist right now.
But first let’s clear up something about the term “cybernetics” itself. Though popularized in the age of Cyberpunk to refer to bionic augmentation, to the scientific community, the word cybernetics defines the shared control between humans and machines (so more like power steering in your Honda than, say, Robocop). A more appropriate term may be cyborg-netics, but no one name has been universally adopted yet.
One of the foremost scientists working tirelessly to produce the prosthetics and augmentations of science fiction is Doctor Hugh Herr of the MIT Media Lab. After losing his legs in a climbing accident at age eighteen, Herr was scaling mountains again only months later, using new artificial legs of his own design. These new legs could adjust his height from five feet to eight feet, and were outfitted with titanium spikes that allowed him to dig into rock walls. Thereafter, Herr dedicated his life to developing smart prosthetics.
Today, as the head of the Biomechatronics research group at MIT, Herr develops powered prosthetics. He’s the inventor of a computer-controlled knee, which can sense the joint’s position and how much weight is being put on the leg and adjust the load accordingly. He’s also created a powered ankle-foot prosthesis which provides proper support and seamlessly imitates the natural gait of an organic leg. So seamlessly, in fact, that if you passed a person in the street who was wearing one, you’d be hard pressed to notice anything out of the ordinary.
In addition to cool prostheses, Dr. Herr has further delved into the realm of science fiction by developing mechanisms that amplify the endurance of able-bodied people, things like elastic shoes that reduce running energy expenditure and improve jumping ability. He’s also built leg exoskeletons for load-carrying augmentation. Ripley, anyone?
But there is one critical problem that none of these incredible breakthroughs solve, and that’s the issue of control. What separates a prosthetic from a true cybernetic limb is the ability to actually exert command over the limb, even though the nerves connecting it to the brain are gone. Todd Kuiken, an M.D. and biomedical engineer at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, who fondly recalls watching The Six Million Dollar Man as a teenager, has found one way around this problem. By rerouting the nerves of amputees into residual muscles, Kuiken gives patients the ability to control their prostheses organically. In other words, a patient who’s lost her arm in an accident can opt to have the nerves once connected to the arm rerouted to the pectoral muscles. The patient then retrains her body to move the prosthetic arm by flexing her pecs.
Now, while this method has proven to be very effective for amputees, for spinal cord patients, it’s of no use. Fortunately, Lee Miller of Northwestern is working to solve this problem. Miller is focusing his research on developing technology that would allow communication between the brain and the body without any physical connection. A current term being batted around for this technology is neuromechatronics and it can be considered the software answer to Hugh Herr’s and Todd Kuiken’s hardware solutions.
What is most surprising about this research, however, is just how far along it is. Test subjects, their brains wired to computers, simply think and a cursor moves across their screens. Quadriplegic patients adjust the volume on their TVs with just their minds. They check their email. And the ability to type just by thinking about the needed key is really not that far away. This, truly, is cyborg-netics.
Of course, some day all this science will go the way of the compact disc and the fax machine, to be replaced by tissue engineering. (Because really, what’s the point of having a bionic arm when you can just grow a new biological one?) But the bio-science revolution is at least thirty years away. In the here and now, cyborg-netic innovations are already allowing previously impaired people to walk freely again, to use computers, and even perform complex motor functions.
In fact, the only severely limiting factor facing cyborg-tech these days is the bottom line. Research and development at this level costs money. How much money? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has developed the prototype of a fully articulated bionic hand. This one hand, however, costs a whopping fifty million dollars. Fifty million! And you probably thought Steve Austin was expensive.
However, with America engaged in two wars overseas, and thousands of amputee veterans returning home, the US Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense have stepped up to the plate to fund research to improve prosthetics. So labs will continue to make progress and we hope that ten years from now, a brain-controlled prosthetic will be possible. Sure, it won’t be a Luke Skywalker-style, thirty-six-degrees-of-freedom hand with a range of motion like yours or mine. No, this one will have only a modest eight degrees, but eight will be enough to allow us to do most of what we do every day. And that’s a pretty great start.
Cyborgs are not the future; these discoveries and innovations are happening right now. And just like science fiction, in cyborg-netics, the possibilities are endless.
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