The Bionic Now (2007)

I have a theory about SF, that it is a predictive and formative genre. It helps us grope blindly toward the future by positing things that we might need to be prepared for – alien contact, colonising other worlds, the advent of AI, massive disaster and, yes, cyborgs. It’s formative too through a kind of recursion, scientists strive to create the crazy ideas of those writers they enjoy. (That’s not even touching on the morality-play sandbox it gives us for contemporary problems). Basic point, we live in the science fiction future. As to whether SF, previously very mechanistic and determinative, can continue to do so in the face of modern weird science is a moot point, but anyway. Here’s an article I wrote about bionics at the end of 2007, for Death Ray 8.

Think the new Bionic Woman seems a little far-fetched? Think again.

There are a number of developments that are sneaking into our world, things that used to fill the SF of yesteryear, but that always appeared to be years away. If you thought the future of your youth was never going to happen, you’re wrong, it was just postponed.

Take the Six Million Dollar Man. Made in 1973 (the novel it was based on, Cyborg, was published in 1972), it tells of pilot Steve Austin. A catastrophic crash destroys his body, but he is rebuilt with powerful bionic limbs. Later, Jaime Summers, his childhood sweetheart, joins him as a cybernetic organism. As the remake of Summers’ series, The Bionic Woman, is out now, we thought it time to take a look at the world of real ‘bionics’. As it happens, Steve Austin is getting scarily close to real.

In 2005, Jesse Sullivan of Ohio received two new arms after losing both his natural limbs to a work accident. In 2006, ex-US Marine Claudia Mitchell, who came off a motorbike and lost her arm at the shoulder, received a more advanced version. Unlike earlier mechanical arms, these exhibit a wide range of movement and are, more importantly, controlled by thought alone. They work by reading nerve impulses, though they are not ‘jacked in’. A computer embedded in the limb reads the electrical signals of the nerves under the skin, and translates these into action. Clunky and sprouting wires, the arms nevertheless allowed both Sullivan and Mitchell to resume normal life.

Technology moves on. Much closer to our idea of what a bionic limb should look like is that received this year by Juan Arredondo. He was fitted with a new right hand called an i-Limb, which is being hailed as the world’s first commercial bionic arm. Developed by Scottish firm Touch Bionics, it is the first replacement limb with fingers that can move independently.

Unfortunately, the current crop of wars is providing a good number of people who require these replacements – Arredondo’s original hand was blown off while he was in duty in Iraq. Modern body armour protects the vital organs of soldiers, while concomitant advances in battlefield medicine and speedy evacuation help ensure wounded combatants have a much higher chance of surviving even the most hideous of injuries. Another casualty of the Iraq war was Stuart Hughes, a BBC journalist who stepped on a land mine. He was one of the first to receive an ‘intelligent’ foot. In many respects making a functional foot is a trickier prospect than an arm. For a start it has to support the whole weight of the body. More complex, our feet and brains perform a complex dance behind the scenes to help us move unthinkingly smoothly over a variety of terrain. Mimicking this interplay, Hughes’ leg contains a microprocessor that reads messages from his new foot, adapting its movement, allowing him to move more or less normally. So effective it is that soldiers with this limb can go back into active service.

As impressive as that is, the way this foot works points out a crucial weakness to ‘bionic’ limbs. Our limbs and brain exist in a perpetual feedback loop, the brain giving direction based on the limbs’ sensation – very little of what we do being consciously governed. Bionic limbs have no nerve endings, and so no sense of touch. They are not linked to our proprioception – the sense that lets us know where all parts of our body are at all times. Science is some way away yet from fully integrated artificial appendages; it is perhaps better to see these devices as highly advanced prosthetics, rather than true ‘bionics’. Far from being superior, they are not as good as real limbs, lacking the speed, dexterity and strength of the biological originals. They’re not as well protected as skin-covered limbs, nor are they permanently attached, and they certainly don’t look real. Furthermore, they require recharging and are expensive – Arredondo’s hand was $65,000. Though that’s only $260,000 for a full set of four limbs, mind, making Steve Austin seem a tad overpriced.

But this will change. Work is being done at Vanderbilt University in Nashville on what is effectively  a steam-powered arm may soon allow prostheses to equal natural limbs in strength and reaction time, while the University of Texas has some interesting ideas on chemically powered muscles that could exceed natural muscle power 100 times over. DARPA, the American military R&D organisation, believes real life Steve Austin limbs – faster, stronger better – are as close as 2009. But first we have to crack ‘as good as’. This sort of talk has various pro-cybernetics and cyber-fetishist groups optimistically believing superherodom is just round the corner. For some, this means the swapping healthy limbs with ‘superior’ mechanical replacements, for others the addition of extras. The advent of real bionic limbs will doubtless open a whole new area of body modification.

Though steel-bending cyberhands are a way off, it’s important to underestimate what has already been achieved. Internal heart pumps allow diseased hearts to rest and recover, and the blind can now literally see thanks to a chip that sits on damaged retinas. Linked to video-camera mounted spectacles, it presents the blind with a world view that, though presented in blocks of pixels, allows people to navigate their environment safely. Other research suggests that it should be possible to wire an imaging device directly into the brain.

And let us not forget the 100,000 previously deaf people worldwide with cochlear implants. Part of this ‘bionic ear’ is actually wired directly into the body, stimulating auditory nerves to deliver sound from an external microphone directly to the brain. This has been so effective that it has sparked furious debate in deaf circles about the death of deaf culture. One of my friends has this device fitted. Partially deaf her entire life and never able to her the higher registers, after getting her new ear she had to ask her husband what the racket was coming in through the window. Apparently it was birdsong, which she was hearing for the first time. She can’t leap a tall building in a single bound, but her ear is perhaps more amazing.

Did you know…?

The usages of the words ‘cybernetic’ and ‘bionic’ in science fiction are misleading. Cybernetics is the study of systems that are self-contained and self-regulatory, interacting with themselves. You could view a human being as a collection of self-producing, self-referential systems and is hence a cybernetic organism anyway, though in popular parlance it means a combination of artificial and natural components working together.

Likewise, bionics is application of natural solutions to engineering problems, such as velcro being inspired by burrs caught in a dog’s fur, sonar mimicking dolphins and so forth. This field is also known as biomimetics.

In both cases in SF, the words refer to artificial parts that are fully integrated into a biological creature – only partially correct in either case (cybernetics in the sense that they work seamlessly together, bionics to the mimicry of the biological). In reality only the word ‘Cyborg’, which was coined to describe a part machine, part biological creature, is accurate.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s