In February 2013, London’s Science Museum hosted the unveiling of the World’s first complete bionic man - a robot composed entirely of functioning artificial organs including a circulatory system pumped by a beating heart.
Assembly, led by roboticists Rich Walker and Mathew Godden of Shadow Robot Co in England, began in August 2013 and was completed in an astonishing 3 months at a cost of approximately 1 million USD. In a manner akin to Frankenstein, the project was brought to life by prosthetic body parts and artificial organs donated by laboratories across the world, leading to the apt nickname of “Frank”.
The creation of this bionic man was viewed as a prominent moment in the history of robotics. Unlike the usual aim to build a prosthetic limb for a human, the team’s objective, as described by Walker, was to “build a human for the prosthetic parts to occupy”. The decision to embark upon this ambitious project was made in partnership with a Channel 4 News Documentary – “How to Build a Bionic Man”, with the intention of promoting the extraordinary advancements in prosthetics. It was hoped that this would particularly resonate with those who had lost limbs or were awaiting organ transplants.
An engineer makes an adjustment to the robot "The Incredible Bionic Man" at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Image Credits: Reuters
Bionics, also referred to as biomimicry, biomimetics, or bio-inspiration, is the scientific discipline regarding the application of biological systems and methods found in nature to the study and design of modern engineering systems. Stemming from this field of study, A bionic man is a structurally designed body that has been taken over completely or in parts by an electromechanical device.
It is possible to model bionic technology on three biological levels:
- Natural manufacturing methods,
- Natural mechanisms, and
- Social behaviour of organisms.
Image Credits: Photos.com
Physical Description of the Bionic Man
The robot was modelled primarily on Bertolt Meyer, a social psychologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. The bionic man has the same prosthetic hand as Meyer — Touch Bionics’ i—LIMB— one of the most advanced artificial limb devices. With a wrist able to fully rotate and motors fitted in each finger, “Frank” demonstrated impressive grasping capability (Although Walker admitted he may not be “the World’s best bartender”). The prosthetic face also bore an extraordinary resemblance to Meyer’s. The likeness was in fact so canny, that upon his first face-to-face meeting with his bionic doppelganger, Meyer described the experience as “awkward”.
It is also supported by a pair of robotic ankles and feet from BiOM in Bedford, Massachusetts, designed and worn by Hugh Herr of MIT’s Media Lab. The bioengineer lost his own legs to frostbite as a teenager following a 3 day blizzard during a mountain-climbing expedition. The main body of the robot was then constructed from an exoskeleton made by REX Bionics in New Zealand, a synthetic mechanism used to support patients of spinal injury.
A total of 28 artificial organs were embedded in the bionic man: artificial heart, blood, lungs (and windpipe), pancreas, spleen, kidney and a functional circulatory system. The artificial heart, made by SynCardia Systems in Tucson, Ariz, had already been successfully used as temporary solution for over 100 heart patients awaiting permanent transplants. As a result, “Frank” had 60 – 70 % the functionality of an average human. The few absent major organs including liver, stomach, and intestines were still too complicated to be manufactured in a lab. He was also devoid of the largest organ, skin.
The robot’s “brain” had the capability to mimic crucial functions of the human brain. With a retinal prosthesis, made by Second Sight in Sylmar, California, which can restore limited sight in blind people, the bionic man was also equipped with a cochlear implant, speech recognition, and speech production systems.
The resulting bionic contraption measured 6 feet in height and 170 pounds (77 kg) in weight.
Operation of the Bionic Man
Control was achieved remotely via Bluetooth connections. The intelligence of the bionic man was limited to a chatbot computer program, a sophistication that enabled him to carry on conversations.
Future of Bionics
With approximately 20% of the UK’s population recognised to have a disability (as of 2017), the development of bionics is undoubtedly a technology which has and will continue to have a huge impact on society. Bionic limbs and bionic retina are amongst some of the most useful advances in the field of bionics, all of which parts exercised by the artificial man were deemed to be suitable for human transplant. The crucial next step strived for by bionic scientists is the design of a system that can initiate a sensation in the limb.
Research in this field was most recently brought to the attention of the media by Next Step Bionics and Prosthetics in December 2018 as they revealed to the World their osseointegrated LUKE arm prosthesis. The key differentiator of this technology is that the device is anchored directly to the bone rather than by means of a socket, enabling the patient to control the arm via muscle movements in the remaining limb. Prior to fitting the LUKE arm, the recipient Julian Moore underwent post target muscle rejuvenation, a procedure which allowed the prosthetic device to make use of the existing neurological pathways.
As remarkable as this breakthrough may be, critics are quick to point out that, as was the case in 2013, prosthetic limbs with embedded sensory network are still far beyond reach. Nevertheless, considering that 20 years ago, the sheer notion of a walking, talking robot was confined to the realms of science fiction, Frank the bionic man embodies the considerable advancements made in prosthetics and inspires confidence in the future of this technology.
Being in its infancy stage, bionics raises a volley of questions to be addressed. Human, ethical, economic and possibly legal issues need to be analysed. If prosthetics were to ever advance past the capabilities of human body parts, this would certainly instigate controversy regarding to what extent this physical enhancement is acceptable. One answer to such questions was articulated by Hugh Herr: “Every person has the right to live life without any disability – if they so choose…as a society, we can achieve these human rights…transcend disability through technological innovation…”
Sources and Further Reading
This article was updated on 15th January, 2019.