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How to Build a Bionic Man

Category: News Release

From bionic arms and legs to artificial organs, science is beginning to catch up with science fiction in the race to replace body parts with man-made alternatives.

How To Build A Bionic Man follows psychologist Bertolt Meyer, who has a bionic hand himself, as he meets scientists working at the cutting edge of research to find out just how far this new technology can go.

Meanwhile a team of roboticists create a complete ‘bionic man' for the first time using nearly $1 million-worth of state of the art limbs and organs - the products of billions of dollars of research - borrowed from some of the world's leading laboratories and manufacturers.

The bionic man is being built by leading UK roboticists Richard Walker and Matthew Godden from Shadow Robot. Made with the support of the Wellcome Trust, it will be displayed at London's Science Museum from February 7th until March 11th.

In the two centuries since Mary Shelley's Dr Frankenstein brought his ‘monster' to life, the subject has fascinated science fiction in books, comics, film and TV.

But from Star Wars' Darth Vader to Robocop and Dr Who's Cybermen to Blade Runner's replicants, most stories focus on the potentially dire consequences of ‘playing God'.

Now research on advanced prosthetic arms and legs, as well as artificial eyes, hearts, lungs - and even hybrids between computer chips and living brains - means that scientists are finally able to replace body parts and even improve on human abilities.

Bertolt Meyer, a social psychologist from Switzerland, was born without a left hand. He's long been fascinated by developments in bionics.

"I've looked around for new bionic technologies, out of personal interest, for a very long time and I think that until five or six years ago nothing much was happening. And then suddenly now we get this explosion of innovation," says Bertolt."I think we are now at a point where we can build a body that is great and beautiful in its own special way."

Bertolt has had prosthetic hands since he was a child. Hisnew £30,000 bionic hand, which can grasp and twist, is the most advanced on the market.

"When I was growing up I hated wearing artificial hands. The plastic hands always looked fake and the metal hooks were useful in some circumstances, but they just looked scary and frightened people," he says."Now that I have this one I feel that the hand is a part of me. If I don't wear it I feel that there is something missing."

But technology is moving so fast that Bertolt'sbionic hand could soon be obsolete. A far more advanced arm is being developed, the product of more than $100 millionof researchinto bionic limbs,funded by the US military.

Bertolt visits Michael McLoughlin at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory to try out the latest prototype -the Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL).

"The human arm has 27 degrees of movement. This arm has a total of 26 degrees of movement. So we've replicated virtually all the levels of movement that the human hand has," says McLoughlin.

Using sixteen electrodes, the arm is controlled by tiny electrical pulses given out by muscles in the upper arm. Bertolt spent months learning how to control his own bionic hand, but this new limb teaches itself to recognize users' electrical pulses in minutes.

Next Bertolt meets the inventor of some of the world's most life-like bionic limbs. Professor Hugh Herr is MIT's director of Biomechatronics. Aclimbing prodigy, Herr lost his legs to frostbite at seventeen after getting caught in a blizzard.

Initially Herr began customizing his prosthetic legs in order to climb again and then, thanks to military funding, he invented a new generation of bionic ankles, which use a motor and spring system to mimic the actions of the human calf muscle and Achilles tendon.

"I was climbing better with artificial limbs than I achieved before my accident with biological limbs," says Hugh Herr."Technology has this extraordinary capacity to heal, to rehabilitate and even to extend human capability beyond what nature intended.

"I think having normal bodies is boring...I have legs, you have shoes. If a fairy came and tapped on my shoulder and granted me a wish, would I wish my legs back? Absolutely not."

But as well as limbs, a bionicman will also need to be able to see the world around it. Professor Robert MacLaren and his team at Oxford University Hospitals are implanting tinymicrochips in the retinas of blind patients to give them sight.

"It is in a way the stuff of science fiction," says Prof MacLaren."We are hoping patients who are completely blind will be able to see basic shapes and objects, to be able to navigate around. And of course for them to be able to see just something is a tremendous advance."

Alex Seifalian, Professor of Nanotechnology and Regenerative Medicine at University College London, has brought together some of the world's most advanced artificial organs, from man-made blood to prosthetic replacements for failing lungs, kidneys, pancreas and spleens. Most are still prototypes, but the hope is that one day they could solve the worldwide shortage of donor organs.

One such device is already saving lives. Artificial hearts are being transplanted into people whose own hearts are failing and for whom donors cannot be found. For the patients and their families it's a modern miracle - but one that comes at a price of $120,000 each.

"At anything like today's costs, there's no society on earth, including the United States, that could afford to implant a hundred thousand artificial hearts a year," says George Annas, Professor of Bioethics and Human Rights at Boston University."Is it acceptable that just the rich people get artificial hearts, and therefore they live longer? I don't think so."

Meanwhile, Bertolt's bionic man is starting to take shape, with arms, legs, eyes and internal organs."It now has a heart and the heart beat looks like the heart beat of a real human," says Bertolt."This puts having prosthesis into perspective...this is a question of life or death."

One organ that science cannot yet match is the human brain. Made up of a hundred billion neurons, it is the most complex structure in the known universe.

But scientists at the University of Southern California are studying the electrical signals in rats' brains to develop microchips that may one day be able to restore memory and even cure Alzheimer's by working with living brains.

The final parts of the bionic man are an exoskeleton, designed to help paraplegics walk again, as well as the speech software used by Stephen Hawking, hooked up to an award-winning internet ‘chat bot'.Finally Bertolt can take the team's creation out of the lab to experience the real world for the first time.

While Bertolt's search shows just how far science has come, it also asks questions about what it means to be human and where this technology could lead in the future.

"The things I have seen have left me with kind of a weird mix of feelings," says Bertolt. "There's optimism that I might live to get an arm that is far more advanced than this one, but then you get developments that augment the healthy human body which I still find it a little bit scary.

"We might be at a point in science and technology where we see first glimpses of the possibilities to go beyond the limits of evolution. I think that really is a double-edged sword."

George Annas, Professor of Bioethics and Human Rights at Boston University agrees:"I think when it comes to our bodies, the danger is we might change what it is to be human," he says."Create a new species that may turn around to bite us, similar to the Frankenstein myth, where your creature let loose in the world becomes destructive and uncontrollable. That's when you go too far."

The Science Museum will be showcasing the bionic body in a new display entitled ‘How much of you can be rebuilt?' - which will explore our perceptions of human identity in the face of an increasingly bionic future. He display will be open from February 7th to March 11th.

The project is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award, which aims to enable the public to explore biomedical science.

How To Build A Bionic Man broadcasts on Channel 4 on Thursday, February 7th at 9.00pm. Made byDarlow Smithson, an Endemol company, it is a co-production with Smithsonian. The Executive Producer for DSP is Julian Ware. It is directed by Tom Coveney and the Researcher is James Pope.