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The Rise of the Bionic Human

New technology is allowing the paralyzed to walk and the blind to see. And it's becoming a smaller leap from repairing bodies to enhancing them

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Body suits are allowing paralyzed people to stand and move. Photo courtesy of Ekso Bionics

Chances are you saw the video of a woman named Claire Lomas finishing a marathon in London last week. If not, I should tell you that it did not end with the classic pose—head back in exhaustion, arms raised in joy.

No, Lomas’ head was down as she watched herself literally place one foot in front of the other. Her arms were down, too, holding on to metal braces. Directly behind, husband Dan moved in stride, steadying her with his hands. And Lomas wore something never seen before in a marathon–a body suit of sensors and motors, which, along with a small computer on her back, moved her legs forward.

It took her 16 days to finish the race, covering just under two miles a day. On the last day, there was a crowd gathered at Big Ben, her starting point. She thought they were tourists. But they were there to cheer on Moser, who’s been paralyzed from the chest down since a horse-riding accident five years ago. Afterwards, she was hailed as a “bionic woman”—an allusion to the ReWalk suit she wore that took steps forward in response to shifts in her balance.

For many of us, our first exposure to the notion of bionic humans was the 1970’s TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man.” It was ostensibly about science, but really was a fantasy about man-made superpowers. (You knew when they were kicking in because lead character Steve Austin would go all slo-mo on you and you’d hear this oscillating synthesizer note suggesting strange and powerful things were happening inside his body.) Turns out, though, that so far bionics has come to be about repairing bodies, not enhancing them, and making people normal, not superhuman.

But the effect is no less remarkable.

I see the light

The ReWalk suit, invented in Israel, allows people with paralyzed lower bodies to sit, stand, walk and climb stairs. And now similar “lower body systems” are being sold to hospitals and rehab centers. Another model, created by a California company called Ekso Bionics, works much like the ReWalk suit, not only giving paralyzed patients an opportunity to stand and move, but also helping people rebuild muscles after an injury or relearn to walk after a stroke. It’s powered by a battery that could run your laptop.

Equally amazing advances are being made in developing a bionic eye. Earlier this month came reports about two British men who had been totally blind for years, but now, after electronic retinas were implanted in their heads, they’re able to see light and even make out shapes.

The device is a wafer-thin microelectronic chip that’s placed behind the retina and connects through a very fine cable to a small control unit and battery placed under the skin behind the ear. Pixels in the chip serve as the eye’s rods and cones. When light enters the eye, it stimulates the pixels, which then send a message to the optic nerve and ultimately, the brain. So the light is “seen.”

And just last Sunday Stanford scientists published research that refines the bionic eye even further. Their artificial retina would largely function the same way, except it would be powered by light. So, no wires, no battery.

Instead, a pair of glasses fitted with a video camera records what’s happening before a patient’s eyes and fires beams of infrared light on to implanted chip. It messages the optic nerve and the brain processes the image.

This device has been tried only with rats so far, but scientists in Australia say yet another version of the retina implant could be tested in humans as early as next year.

Which leads to the obvious question: Isn’t it just a matter of time before eye implants will come with apps that zoom, record, maybe throw in a little augmented reality? Some would say–such as those in the transhumanist movement–that we have an obligation to be the engineers of our own evolution.

Maybe some day we will be able to run like the Six Million Dollar Man. Hopefully, minus the sound effects.

Going bionic

Here’s more from the cutting edge of bionics innovation:

Video bonus: Watch Cathy Hutchinson, who hasn’t been able to use her arms and legs for 15 years, pick up a coffee cup, using only her brain to control a robotic arm.

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