Our Bionic Future: 5 Amazing Revolutions in BiotechBy Jared Newman
Though the term “Bionics” conjures an image of futuristic cyborgs and questionable ethics, it’s actually a pretty benevolent science. From better prosthetics to the restoration of once-irreplaceable body parts, Bionics are, for the most part, here to help. And it gets better every year, with yesterday’s advancements becoming either reality or obsolete in the face of even better inventions. Here are some of the latest and greatest to benefit humanity.
DARPA’s “Revolutionizing Prosthetics” Program
With $30 million in hand from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Vanderbilt University set out to create a mechanical arm powered by a rocket. But this isn’t some evil plan to turn our troops into super soldiers; it’s part of a multi-site initiative by DARPA to build better prosthetics.
The problem with battery-powered prosthetic arms is their limited functionality. Most batteries can’t power much beyond a pivot at the elbow and a claw grip, and larger power sources get too heavy. The rocket arm’s propulsion system measures the size of a pencil, and has more realistic motion than its predecessors. Other parts of the DARPA program are working to wire prosthetics to patients’ brains. Combine those advancements with the Vanderbilt program, and you’ve got one kick-ass fake arm.
Syncing Artificial Limb to Real Brain
The DARPA program mentioned above has some competition when it comes to making smarter artificial limbs. Last spring, lab monkeys learned to control prosthetic arms with the help of an implant on their motor cortices. The monkeys needed no help after a couple of days, and over time their brains even learned new uses for the arms. Scientists hope to someday bring the technology to victims of paralysis.
Even more recently, scientists reported that more advanced movements were possible through “targeted muscle reinnervation.” After an amputation, remaining nerves are connected to other parts of the body, where they act as receivers for brain signals. The nerves then pass the signal on to the prosthetic arm. So far, 10 distinct movements in the hand, wrist and elbow are possible. Patients are currently testing the method, but it’ll take years to work out the occasional odd mannerism.
Perhaps you’ve heard about nanorobots, the tiny mechanical tools that can theoretically enter a human body and treat medical woes. The problem with these developments, like the microscopic robot submarine, is energy, because it’s not easy for such a tiny device to generate enough power for complicated tasks. The answer, scientists at Cornell University say, is sperm.
The tail of a sperm contains an assembly line for ATP, often called “energy currency” for living cells. And who can argue with the get-up-and-go spirit of those little guys? If scientists can merge sperm’s biological propulsion system with nanorobots, we might have a viable way to heal ourselves from the inside.
Inkjet Skin and Bones
In traditional skin and bone grafting, material is taken from one part of the body and appended to the damaged area, but each person only has so much skin and bone to go around. Fortunately, scientists have been working for years on artificial material that can bridge the gap between real stuff when it’s broken. Modified inkjet printers spray a cement-like powder on acid, causing a hardening reaction that takes about 10 minutes. After the new skin or bone grows in, the artificial substance slowly dissolves into the body.
This work is still being perfected. Last we heard, plastic surgeons performed successful grafts on dozens of patients, but only as part of a trial run. It’s also too early to use the technology for weight-bearing bones, as the material isn’t strong enough.
Bionic Body Armor and Cybernetic Enhancements
Look, you can’t have all of the above advancements without at least one benefit for super-soldiers. While exoskeletons have been around for a while, earlier this month, the Firearm Blog discovered an IBM patent for Matrix-style body armor. Embedded into the soldier, these implants would control the nervous system at pivotal points in a firefight. For example, upon detecting a nearby bullet, the armor moves the subject out of the way.
The subject could also be made to collapse completely, making for a potentially scary future where insubordinate soldiers are rendered powerless. Anyway, IBM withdrew the patent after its discovery on the ‘net, but not before the vast network of Agents saved it to their hard drives.
Thanks for reading, GearCravers, Stumblers, Redditers and Diggers! What do you think about these five technologies? Are there any of these that you are specifically excited about or imtimidated by? Are there any that we should have included but did not? Share your thoughts in the comments, and please give us a vote in your favorite social media website!