Technological Human Enhancement Coming Close

In the 70s he was a TV fantasy. Now the bionic man is real – and he even plays sax.

The 1970s gave us the six-million-dollar man. Thirty years and quite a bit of inflation later we have the six-billion-dollar human: not a physical cyborg as such, instead an umbrella term for the latest developments in the growing field of technology for human enhancement.

Daniel Palanker, a physicist at Stanford University in California, had the idea to bypass the dead rods and cones and to stimulate the cells of the inner retina with electrical signals directly. Previous research had shown this method allowed perception of light, and Dr Palanker built a way to exploit it.

His bionic eye system is made up of a 3mm chip implanted into the retina and a pair of virtual-reality-style goggles containing a video camera. The goggles convert the video pictures into an infrared image. “The image is projected on to the retina and the retinal implant has photosensitive pixels that convert infrared light into pulses of electrical current, stimulating the cells in the retina,” said Dr Palanker.

So far, he has only fitted rats and rabbits with the bionic eye. Human trials will begin in a couple of years and, when they do, Dr Palanker reckons the system will give people 20/80 vision – normal is 20/20, you need 20/40 for a driving licence and 20/400 is the legal definition of blindness – allowing people to read large fonts and recognise faces.

No cyborg could be complete without superhuman strength and Homayoon Kazerooni of the University of California, Berkeley, can help. “The technology we developed is a robotic device a person would wear and this way, the device would carry a major load and the person would not feel any load,” he said.

The Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (Bleex) fits along the legs and has a frame at the wearer’s back to fit a backpack. “The maximum load is 200lb [90kg] and the person will not feel anything at all. We thought the combination of human interaction, human decision-making process with machine power is a better solution for a lot of robotic tasks.”

Prosthetics are another hot area of research. Modern artificial hands, for example, give wearers a better quality of life but they have little of the functionality of the real hands they replace. “The current technology means that people can open and close an appendage, a hook, that has a cosmetic cover but nothing more. Everybody in the field knows we have to improve upon this,” said William Craelius of Rutgers University in New Jersey.

His artificial hand system, Dextra, is leagues ahead. By recording the movement of muscles in the remaining part of the arm as a person thinks about moving their hand, Dextra can control up to three fingers. Different patterns of muscle movement correspond to different movements and, after a few minutes of calibration, the robotic hand is ready for action. “It enables the ability to type slowly or to play a piano piece. One person wanted to play the saxophone and, with three fingers, you can actually get quite musical with it,” said Dr Craelius.

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