Fairfax Tech Talk Column

Fairfax Tech Talk Column

31.1.2020 Fairfax Tech Talk Column 183


“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.” And so began each weekly episode of the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ which ran from 1973 to 1978.

Steve Austin, the fictional bionic man, had his legs replaced to allow him to run at 60mph; one eye replaced to give him zoom level of 20.2 times and his right arm replaced with a unit that gave him the ‘strength of a bulldozer’. Very futuristic for a TV show from almost fifty years ago.

Take fiction and add lots of years of research and development and you can sometimes end up with reality. How are we progressing in our current environment with bionic replacements?

A world record was recently shattered at the Charleston Marathon by a man in an exoskeleton. Adam Gorlitsky crashed his vehicle fourteen years ago which left him paralysed below the waist. He purchased a robotic exoskeleton for $80,000 which allowed him to complete the marathon in 33 hours and 16 minutes. OK, maybe not better, stronger, faster but certainly a drastic improvement over no movement at all.

João Carlos Martins is an acclaimed classical pianist reaching the twilight of his career but a number of circumstances (including age) have made it increasingly difficult for him to play the piano. He now wears bionic gloves that help his hands maintain their function. As one of the greatest living interpreters of Bach, he is not yet at a standard that is acceptable to him but still hopes to play at Carnegie Hall in October to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his first appearance there.

Keven Walgamott lost his left hand and part of his arm in an electrical accident seventeen years ago. Thanks to a biomedical team at the University of Utah, he recently used his thoughts to not only move his prosthetic hand, but move it with enough feeling to pick up an egg without crushing it.

With an estimated 285 million people worldwide with visual impairment, development of a bionic eye would be a financial bonanza to any company that was successful. The best we have at the moment is a system that delivers light, movement and shapes at a low resolution with no colour. The main limitation is the fact that only 60 electrodes are used to transmit information from the outside world to the optic nerve. To see naturally would require about a million. At $150,000 the device is not priced for everyone but watch this space (I at least made it past the halfway mark before the weekly pun).

We have many people in society that have parts of their bodies replaced with various man-made items. From mechanical valves in hearts to complete artificial hearts. From cochlear implants to insulin pumps. We have become accustomed to various components being deployed in our bodies and, if it improves the quality of life for an individual, I believe that most people are comfortable with the concepts.

These examples are all aimed at restoring or repairing rather than improving the functionality of a human. Someone is paralysed or loses a hand or an arm. The issue becomes much more complicated when it relates to the Steve Austin scenario. Better, stronger, faster. Medical advancements are working very hard to use whatever means to make people better again but not so much stronger or faster. And that seems fair enough.

Tell me who was your favourite – Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man or Jaime Sommers, the Bionic Woman, at ask@techtalk.digital.

Mathew Dickerson