Documenting the Coming Singularity

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Building a Better Bionic Body

Remember when Steve Austin first came on the scene? If you were alive then and of TV-watching age, you'll recall that he had some bionic parts put in or on him: one arm, two legs and his left eye, to be specific. These hi-tech parts gave him superhuman powers. He could run in slow motion. He could lift heavy objects even though his spine was original and shouldn't have been able to handle the load, but never mind all that. He was exceptional. But he was pure science fiction. But not for much longer., a web site that covers the latest advances in technology for doctors, informs us that "advances in medical prostheses and computer technology are making the dream of building a bionic human a reality." Here are some highlights:
  • Bionic Eye: The Argus II bionic eye is currently undergoing trials in 50-75 patients in the US. The system uses a spectacle mounted camera that feeds visual information to 60 electrodes implanted in the retina.
  • Bionic Ear: Cochlear implants are one of the oldest pieces of the bionic man, first developed in 1969 by William House and Jack Urban. Although traditionally the devices have been implanted in just one ear, bilateral cochlear implants are currently being trialled as two implants help in localizing sounds.
  • Bionic Brain: An artificial hippocampus (part of the brain responsible for storing new memories) is being developed by scientists at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Arrays of electrodes record electrical activity coming from the brain and further arrays send appropriate electrical instruction back out. The idea is that the implant will be able to bypass damaged areas of brain tissue by replicating it’s function electronically.
  • Bionic Tongue: (Oh behave!) Scientists at the Luebeck Medical University in Germany have conducted successful tests on pigs of the first bionic tongue. The tongue is constructed from throat muscles linked to a device that transmits nerve signals in a similar way to a heart pacemaker.
  • Bionic Nose: We are still waiting for a bionic nose but in the meantime development continues on artificial electronic noses. Uses for such technology include laboratory noses for measuring aromas used in R&D for food, beverage, medical and environmental applications. They are also being used in hospitals for smelling for ’superbugs’.
  • Bionic Heart: In July 2001, Robert Tools received the first completely self-contained artificial heart transplant. The Abiocor replacement heart is designed for patients with end-stage heart failure when all other treatment options have been exhausted.
  • Bionic Lung: Surgeon Robert Bartlett successfully replaced 100% of the lung function of sheep with an implantable artificial lung. The design used tiny hollow fibers and the hearts own pumping power. Other designs for artificial lungs have used external mechanical pumps to push the blood through the oxygenating device.
  • Bionic Arm: Bionic arms work by detecting movements of chest muscle that have been connected to the remains of nerves that once went to the lost limb. The impulses emitted from the transplanted nerves into the chest muscle are picked up by the harness and processed by a computer which then directs very precise movements of the artificial limb.
  • Bionic Kidney: Currently, patients with renal failure rely on external dialysis to replace the functions carried out by the human kidney. Work is ongoing on dialysis technology to decrease the size and complexity which will result in implantable bionic kidneys according to Dr. William Fissell, an internist at the University of Michigan School of Medicine: The first step toward that goal, Fissell said, is improving the effectiveness of external artificial kidneys, or hemodialysis devices. Next would be to make an external device small enough for a patient to wear continuously. The final step would be a device that could be implanted, not unlike a pacemaker for the heart.
  • Bionic Liver: Dr. Jörg C. Gerlach from the University of Pittsburgh invented a bionic liver that consisted of a tiny pump, a chamber containing human liver cells, and a catheter connecting it all to the patient. This, and other similar projects such as ELAD (extracorporeal liver assist device), produced by Vitagen Incorporated of La Jolla, California, are intended to be a temporary solutions in the event of liver failure rather than a permanent, internal replacement to the human liver. While work continues on integrating mechanical solutions to liver failure, scientists from Newcastle University in the UK have successfully grown a replacement mini-liver from umbilical cord stem cells. The cells were then placed in a “bioreactor” developed by NASA that mimics the effects of weightlessness and allows them to multiply rapidly. Using hormones and chemicals, the stem cells are then coaxed into turning into liver tissue.
  • Bionic Stomach: Martin Wickham from the Institute of Food Research has developed an artificial stomach to help decipher how the human gut reacts to various foods and conditions. This device is not intended to be a bionic stomach replacement though as the artificial stomach is not connected to humans and is not designed to replace stomach activity.
  • Bionic Leg: Replacement bionic legs for amputees. These bionic legs are attached following an amputation to help the patient regain lost limb function. An example of this type of bionic leg is the Victhom Power Knee. Augmented bionic legs for soldiers and other heavy lifting applications. Pictured above is the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton, or Bleex, is part of a US defence project designed to be used mainly by infantry soldiers.
It's getting harder and harder to keep up. But I will keep trying for both of us. That's what I do.