• Dr. Timothy Smith

A Glimpse at our Bionic Future

Bionic hand

Photo Source: Flickr

The term “cyborg” draws up images of people composed of robotic limbs, computer augmented brains, or cameras for eyes. The television show titled The Six Million Dollar Man starring Lee Majors debuted in 1973 and ran for five seasons. It featured an astronaut gravely injured in a test flight crash. He survived, sustaining crippling injuries to his legs, right arm, and left eye. The tag line for the show states, “Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man.” The show details Steve Austin’s recovery and highlights the bionic superpowers that he uses to fight international terrorists and help avert disasters. His bionic legs and arm give him remarkable speed and strength, while his bionic eye gives him night vision and super acuity.

The show may seem a little quaint by today’s standards, but the concept of cyborgs or bionic people remains more relevant now than ever. Technological advances in robotics, computing, and medicine offer real opportunities for people to augment their bodies. Naturally, the first applications of bionics to people revolve around helping the injured and those born with issues such as blindness or deformities. Such advances offer hope for mobility and freedom to those patients to live a normal life, but there also exists the other aspect of cyborg research, which involves enhancing human abilities beyond our current, normal limits. The line between science fiction and reality continues to blur as researchers in both the public and private sector make advances in human robotic and computer interfaces. For example, the former Microsoft developer Thomas Reardon, who developed MS’s search engine called Internet Explorer back in in the 1990s, left the company in the early 2000s to study neuroscience and behavior at Columbia University. He cofounded a company called CTRL-labs with other neuroscience Ph.D. graduates of Columbia such as Patrick Kaifosh (CTRL-Labs). With the mission to make computers “natural extensions of thought and movement.” CTRL-labs developed a wearable band that wraps around the upper arm and through electronic sensors contacting the skin and artificial intelligence to interpret the nerve signals traveling down the arm from the brain. CTRL-kit, as they call it, creates an accurate three-dimensional representation of the user’s hand and its motions in a virtual computer environment. With the CTRL-kit, the user can manipulate objects with high accuracy by merely thinking of it. Now a person with a natural hand may not be so impressed by a virtual hand, but the implications are profound. Using this technology, it is possible to have a bionic hand that could replace an arthritic hand or replace a natural hand that at once could be much stronger and more durable than an average human hand.

Moreover, such direct translation of the brain’s intention would have a massive impact on gaming as well as practical applications such as remote surgery or repair of distant objects such as satellites or remote machinery. A company called bebionic out of Germany offers one of the world’s most advanced bionic hands designed for amputees to mimic the fine and gross motor skills of a natural hand (Bebionic). Bebionic’s hands that sell for about $11,000 do not read the neural signals like CTRL-kit. Instead, bebionic measures electrical changes in the skin that covers control muscles in the remaining portion of the arm. Patient testimonial videos show individuals using their bionic hands to hold magazines, turn pages, and even lift weights at the gym. (Bebionic)

Cyborgs represent a combination of robotics, computer science, and biology that combine to replace lost or damaged limbs or other faculties such as sight or sound. Science fiction offers visions beyond the restoration of mobility, freedom, and faculty that prosthetics provide; now, in recent science, bionics give the chance of an augmented human function such as extended strength or durability. With advances in material science, robotic hands controlled directly by the mind could withstand high heat or cold to extend the range of human effectiveness. More extreme possibilities include brain computer interfaces that would enhance memory with direct access to computer-based information systems or augmented vision that extends beyond the visible spectrum to give people night vision or heat vision, allowing them to look through walls without the need for special glasses. It appears healthy people have yet to request amputation to gain a bionic limb, but as reported in the scientific journal Nature, several volunteers with significant nerve damage elected to have hands amputated and replaced by bionic hands (Nature). People have used technology to extend their capabilities, using tools as simple as a hammer all the way to supercomputers and advanced machines. Moreover, body augmentation through plastic surgery has become commonplace today, which portends that people will embrace more bionics to enhance their capabilities beyond the restoration of normal function.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.

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