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Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Insane and Exciting Future of the Bionic Body

Bertolt Meyer pulls off his left forearm and gives it to me. It’s smooth and black, and the hand has a clear silicone cover, like an iPhone case. Beneath the rubbery skin are skeletal robotic fingers of the sort you might see in a sci-fi movie—the “cool factor,” Meyer calls it.
“Can I touch it?” I ask. “Go ahead,” he says. I run my hand along the sticky silicone and it helps dispel my unease—the stump may look strange, but the arm feels strong and healthy.
Meyer, 33, is slightly built and has dark features and a friendly face. A native of Hamburg, Germany, currently living in Switzerland, he was born with only an inch or so of arm below the left elbow. He has worn a prosthetic limb on and off since he was 3 months old.
The first one was passive, just to get his young mind accustomed to having something foreign attached to his body. When he was 5 years old, he got a hook, which he controlled with a harness across his shoulders. He didn’t wear it much, until he joined the Boy Scouts when he was 12. “The downside is that it is extremely uncomfortable because you’re always wearing the harness,” he says.
This latest iteration is a bionic hand, with each finger driven by its own motor. Inside of the molded forearm are two electrodes that respond to muscular signals in the residual limb: Sending a signal to one electrode opens the hand and to the other closes it.
Activating both allows Meyer to rotate the wrist an unnerving 360 degrees. “The metaphor that I use for this is learning how to parallel park your car,” he says as he opens his hand with a whir. At first, it’s a little tricky, but you get the hang of it.
Touch Bionics, the maker of this mechanical wonder, calls it the i-limb. The name represents more than marketing. Improved software, longer-lasting batteries and smaller, more power-efficient microprocessors—the technologies driving the revolution in personal electronics—have ushered in a new era in bionics.
In addition to prosthetic limbs, which are more versatile and user-friendly than ever before, researchers have developed functioning prototypes of artificial organs that can take the place of one’s spleen, pancreas or lungs.
And an experimental implant that wires the brain to a computer holds the promise of giving quadriplegics control over artificial limbs. Such bionic marvels will increasingly find their way into our lives and our bodies. We have never been so replaceable.
I met Meyer on a summer day in London, in the courtyard of a 19th- century cookie factory. Meyer is a social psychologist at the University of Zurich, but his personal experiences with prosthetics have instilled in him a fascination with bionic technology. He says the past five years, in particular, have seen an explosion of innovation.
As we chatted over coffee, engineers worked on a novel demonstration in a nearby building. During the past few months, they had been gathering prosthetic limbs and artificial organs from around the world to be assembled into a single, artificial structure named the Bionic Man. You can see the startling results in a documentary airing October 20 on the Smithsonian Channel.
Engineers designed the Bionic Man to enable several of its human-dependent parts to operate without a body. For instance, although the robot is fitted with i-limbs, it doesn’t possess the nervous system or brain to make them work. Instead, the Bionic Man can be controlled remotely via a computer and specially designed interfacing hardware, while a Bluetooth connection can be used to operate the i-limbs.
Nonetheless, the robot vividly showcases how much of our bodies can be replaced by circuits, plastic and metal. Adding to the dramatic effect, the Bionic Man’s face is a silicone replica of Meyer’s.
Rich Walker, the managing director of the project, says his team was able to rebuild more than 50 percent of the human body. The level of progress in bionics surprised not only him but “even the researchers who had worked on the artificial organs,” he says.
Although multiple artificial organs can’t yet function together in a single human body, the scenario has become realistic enough that bioethicists, theologians and others are contending with the question, How much of a human being can be replaced and still be considered human? For many, the criterion is whether a device enhances or interferes with a patient’s ability to relate to other people.
There’s broad agreement, for instance, that technology that restores motor functions to a stroke victim or provides sight to the blind does not make a person less human. But what about technology that could one day transform the brain into a semi-organic supercomputer?
Or endow people with senses that perceive wavelengths of light, frequencies of sounds and even types of energy that are normally beyond our reach? Such people might no longer be described as strictly “human,” regardless of whether such enhancements represent an improvement over the original model.
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