From the time I was eight until age twelve, I religiously watched The Six Million Dollar Man on TV. Steve Austin’s bionic arm, legs and eye were the ultimate in science fiction. At the time it was seemingly unthinkable that such technology could exist. After all, how could mechanical parts look human, move, and feel? Putting aside that some of Steve Austin’s feats were indeed impossible – a bionic arm could conceivably lift a car off a trapped person, but the rest of his body’s structure couldn’t handle the stress – the basic form and function are approaching reality.
Early prosthetic limbs were either formed to look real, or had some level of rudimentary function. They were half measures at providing some level of return to normalcy for people who had lost an arm or leg to accident or war. In December of last year, Popular Mechanics did an article highlighting Les Baugh, a double amputee who lost his arms in an electrical accident 40 years prior. With limbs developed by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and surgery to modify certain nerve endings, Mr. Baugh now has two new arms he can control – simultaneously – with his mind. So here we are, forty years after Steve Austin graced our TV screens, and we’re seeing its technology become a reality.
But Steve Austin’s arms looked real – and he could feel through them. Mr. Baugh’s arms cannot do that. Not yet.
Last month, Scientific American published a story on a breakthrough with artificial skin. Researchers at Stanford University have developed an electronic skin that can judge pressure, effectively conveying sensations of touch. In another study at Case Western, researchers successfully grafted electronic sensors to nerve cells of a man who had lost a hand. They were able to allow the subject to determine the roughness of a material he was holding.
What about Steve Austin’s eye?
Visual signals seem to be a little more difficult for technology to master. Still, as the BBC reports, a man from Manchester, England suffering from macular degeneration is using a retinal implant to make out basic directions of lines on a computer screen. Though that is far from being able to zoom in on something from miles away, it is a wonderful first step in getting there.
This technology is a wondrous thing and as it progresses, more and more people who have had horrific injuries will be able to lead more normal lives. Yet, at the same time, many ethical questions must be raised as to how its used. Will we see people voluntarily having limbs removed in order to have more capable bionics installed? Will this begin the transformation of humanity to a new evolutionary state? With every door bionic technology opens, care must be taken that we don’t blindly walk blindly through.