A $1 million dollar bionic something or other is now on display at the London Science Museum. It's not really a man, and it's not really a robot. It's not really a cyborg, either, although that might be the closest accurate descriptor. What it is, is a showcase of all of the artificial systems we can install in humans to try and fix things that aren't working, along with a look towards the future of augmented biology, all stuffed into a human form.
Rex, as this, er, project, is called, was put together out of $1 million work of artificial body parts by Shadow Robot Company to be featured as part of a documentary on BBC's Channel 4 entitled "How to Build a Bionic Man." Here's a preview:
There's a nifty interactive infographic that you can mess with to check out all the different artificial bits on the Channel 4 website (find it here), but here's some highlights from an impressively long list of biomechanical replacement parts. We'll go through the internal stuff, since it's arguably just as important (if not more important) than things like cybernetic limbs, but gets a lot less attention because it's less visible:
Arteries and Trachea: Nanocomposite polymers seeded with stem cells. Developed by Royal Free Hospital in London, patients have successfully received implants.
Blood: A paste of plastic molecules suspended in water with similar oxygen binding and releasing properties as the hemoglobin in red blood cells. Developed by the University of Sheffield, undergoing laboratory development.
Kidneys: Immune stable nanoscale filtration system coupled with renal tubule cells in an implantable cartridge. Developed by UCSF, ready for clinical trials in three to five years.
Heart: Battery powered, self contained, total replacement system. Developed by SynCardia Systems, approved for implantation in humans by the FDA.
Spleen: Magnetic nanoparticles pull pathogens out of blood and into a saline solution through a porous membrane. Developed by the Wyss Institute, undergoing testing for battlefield triage deployment.
Pancreas: Circuitless glucose-sensitive insulin gel releasing implant. Developed by De Montford University, under development.
Lungs: Portable blood/air mass exchanger which can remove CO2 from and add oxygen to the blood of active patients through gas permeable, surface-coated hollow fiber polymers. Developed by Haemair, prototype in laboratory testing.
Eyes: External video camera sends images through a processor, which transmits them wirelessly to a receiver mounted on the eye. An array of electrodes placed directly onto the retina sends signals along the optic nerve, which the brain learns to interpret as images. Developed by Second Sight, undergoing international clinical tests.
There are also lots of other pieces of cybernetic hardware, like arms and hands and hips and knees and feet and even an external powered exoskeleton, and it's definitely worth checking out that infographic to get details on it all. Note that most of the stuff on this list is not presently available for human implantation, although some of it is, and all of it is at least undergoing active research.
Cybernetics is just one way that technology can help humans conquer serious medical problems, but soon enough, it'll be getting a run for its money with stem cells and custom 3D printed organs. The difference, though, is that while grown organs are replacements, cybernetic organs have the potential to be improvements. I mean, why would we replace dysfunctional limbs or organs with organic copies, if we can make better mechanical versions? Yeah, it might mean having to recharge your limbs once in a while (at least until kinetic power harvesters get integrated into our bones), but wouldn't that be worth it to be turned into a superhero with unbreakable bones and super strong limbs and joints that have more flexibility than a regular human?
Rex is on display now at the Science Museum in London, and I'm off to play Deus Ex.
[ London Science Museum ] via [ Channel 4 ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.