Scientists build ‘complete’ bionic man for TV

Odd couple: Dr Bertolt Meyer and his bionic creation made entirely from prosthetics © Channel 4

He may not be much of a looker, but Rex walks, talks and moves much like a human being. Every inch of his ‘body’ is artificially engineered. Will we soon build humans from scratch?

Mouth by NeoSpeech, hips by Ottobock, arms by Motion Control Inc and eyes by Second Sight Medical Products: Rex is the ultimate designer robot. Each of his parts comes from the cutting edge of prosthetic technology, imported from medical laboratories all over the world.

But he is more than just a showcase for eye-catching inventions. This fully-functioning bionic man can navigate environments, manipulate objects and even hold simple conversations, all without the slightest human input.

Rex was built for this week’s Channel 4 documentary How to Build a Bionic Man by a team whose leader, Bertolt Meyer, has had a prosthetic hand of his own since childhood. Meyer's challenge: to rebuild himself without a centimetre of biological matter.

With a thick, seven-foot-high frame, awkward movements, a bellyful of wires and clumsy habits, Rex does not quite match up to the real thing. But he is a spectacular achievement.

His eyes are cameras; images are sent to a microchip, which recognises nearby objects and send messages to his limbs. His legs are formed by the Rex Bionics Exoskeleton, equipped with 29 computer processors which allow him to walk, sit and climb – as well as giving him his name.

But perhaps the most impressive parts are on the inside. There is a false pancreas made of gel, which responds to the presence of glucose by liquefying and releasing the insulin within. There is an artificial heart pumping plastic blood, a prototype kidney the size of a coffee cup and even a small language-processing chip.

Many of these prosthetic body parts are already used to replace missing or damaged organs and limbs. Those that are not soon will be. But researchers believe these transplant projects are only the beginning: soon, robotics may outstrip biology, making bionic parts more desirable than the originals.

‘Nobody will be going out without less than two hearts,’ said one. ‘Your entire concept of what constitutes humanity is going to change.’

Superhuman

Limbs of steel, invincible hearts, chip-enhanced brains – it all sounds very exciting. But what if an entire human body, brain included, was replaced by artificial parts? Would the resulting creature still be a person? Would it, in fact, be conscious at all?

Of course not, some say: we are not just a collection of cells and nerve endings. A person’s essential humanity lies somewhere else, somewhere intangible and unreachable by science.

That is simply an illusion, others respond: humans, like everything else in the universe, are nothing more or less than a bundle of chemicals interacting in spectacularly complicated ways. If a bionic person functioned exactly like us, they say, it would think and feel like us too.

You Decide

  1. If you could painlessly replace your legs with far more powerful and flexible robotic alternatives, would you do it? Why / why not?
  2. Is there any aspect of human thought or experience that can’t be explained by a physical characteristic?

Activities

  1. Write a short science fiction story set in a world where we coexist with bionic men and women. Think about the ethical dilemmas that might be encountered by people living in such a future.
  2. Design an improved version of a body part, and explain briefly how it might work using comparisons to the biological version.

Some People Say...

“A bionic man could never feel love.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Awesome. So when can I get myself X-ray vision and a turbo-powered arm?
Not just yet: few of Rex’s body parts are as effective as the human originals. But they are fast catching up. Artificial hands can now respond to brain signals to perform complex mechanical functions, while false organs work without any external energy source or conscious thought. Some organs, such as the stomach and intestines, remain a challenge, and a synthetic brain is the holy grail – but some researchers claim that even this is only ten years away.
Is there any way I can see Rex in the ‘flesh’?
Yes! He’ll be on display in London’s Science Museum for the next month, then travel to Washington DC’s Smithsonian. Unfortunately he will have to be dismantled after that – but he won’t be the last of his kind!

Word Watch

Prosthetic technology
Prosthetics is the science and technology of creating artificial devices that replace or fix body parts. Until recently, prosthetic limbs were inactive objects that attached to a joint or bone; but sensors now allow people to control limbs using brain activity, just as you would the real thing.
Bionic man
Bionic technology is technology that mimics life. Rex has been designated a man because he was loosely based on his chief creator Dr Bertolt Meyer, on whom the head was modelled.
Clumsy habits
Rex’s coordination is a little imperfect – for instance, he spilled Dr Meyer’s beer twice in one outing!
Pancreas
The pancreas produces several vital hormones including insulin, which controls how much glucose organs absorb from the blood. Diabetes causes problems in insulin production, so an artificial pancreas like Rex’s could help millions.
Plastic blood
Blood transfusions are effective, but maintaining supplies can be problematic, because natural blood cannot be preserved for more than about 30 days outside the body. Artificial blood could soon provide the solution.

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