Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Straight Talk

The One Million Dollar Man

Researcher Bertolt Meyer, a lifelong user of prosthetic technology and the model for 'Rex', the world's first 'bionic man', poses with the humanoid at the Science Museum in London.

Researcher Bertolt Meyer, a lifelong user of prosthetic technology and the model for ‘Rex’,
the world’s first ‘bionic man’, poses with the humanoid at the Science Museum in London.

“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better…stronger …faster.”  I am sure some of you will be familiar with this opening sequence from the famous 70′s television series The Six Million Dollar Man. The series portrays the story of Steve Austin, an astronaut who is severely injured in a crash in which his right arm, both legs and left eye are irrevocably damaged. He is subsequently given bionic implants to replace them and enhance his strength, speed and vision far beyond normal human capability. Who can forget the slow motion running and action sequences accompanied by the unmistakable electronic sound effects? The show was highly successful and garnered popularity at the time though it did seem rather farfetched and somewhat unrealistic. If we fast forward to 2013, suddenly Steve Austin, the bionic man, does not seem as implausible especially with technology advancing in leaps and bounds (pun intended!).
Let me introduce you to Rex (short for robotic exoskeleton) who is, unlike our fictional character Steve Austin, a real world bionic man, albeit not a human one but who cost one million dollars and not six million dollars to build!
Presented by Bertolt Meyer, a social psychologist from Zurich University, the creation of Rex was aired in the UK on Channel 4 in an eye opening documentary called ‘How to Build a Bionic Man’. Rex was put together by UK roboticists Richard Walker and Matthew Godden from Shadow Robot Company or rather they were responsible for assembling all the components together to build Rex.
During the show, we were taken on a journey where cutting edge engineering and technology relating to prosthetic limbs and artificial organs were brought together from around the world and incorporated to create the first bionic man, Rex. Bertolt Meyer was also the person in whose image Rex has been created. In fact when Rex’s face was revealed to Meyer, he appeared to be overcome with revulsion and even said that “it has this Frankenstein creepiness to it”. I suppose it is totally understandable when you consider looking at Rex was like staring into a reflection of Meyer’s own face but where his body consisted of a mishmash of artificial limbs and organs — definitely Frankenstein like. Rex also shares the same brown eyes as Meyer but which hide a pair of retinal implants for vision, a cochlear implant for hearing and even a speech generator to allow for simple sentence structuring. It did make me laugh when Rex described Eminem the famous rapper as a ‘crapper’ then immediately corrected himself.
Within Rex’s robotic exoskeleton, exists an artificial heart system which allows the synthetic blood to be pumped around through a network of artificial arteries; an artificial pancreas which responds to the body’s glucose levels to regulate insulin supply and therefore regulates the level of blood sugar in the system; an artificial trachea; a ‘chip’ in place of a spleen using nano technology which cleans the blood; and a prototype artificial kidney which has the capacity and technology of a fridge-sized dialysis machine but happens to be no bigger than a regular coffee cup.
Added to that is of course the use of the world’s most advanced prosthetic limbs. Meyer himself was born without a lower left arm and is no stranger to the usage of an artificial limb. He was also one of the first people to be fitted with an iLimb Pulse prosthesis in 2010, a slightly different version of the artificial limb given to Rex. However, even he was surprised at how far science and medicine has progressed since then, especially when he got to test the bionic hand to be used in Rex. Both created by Touch Bionics, the iLimb Ultra responds to tiny electrical impulses generated by the muscle movements of the user and the only prosthetic hand with the ability to “allow users to increase the strength of their grip on an object while they are holding it”. It was humbling to watch how thrilled Meyer was when he was able to bend his wrist and also pick up objects with the prosthetic fingers, something which most artificial hands do not allow for and something most of us take for granted.
Rex’s feet and ankles were developed by Prof Hugh Herr, an expert US biophysicist from MIT who himself had lost both his legs below the knee due to severe onset of frostbite. Unaware of this, when given a demonstration of the latest prosthetic ankle worn by an amputee, Meyer was thoroughly impressed and commented to Herr, “If he was wearing long trousers… you wouldn’t realise that he was wearing an artificial leg.” Herr’s response to this was to pull up his own trousers exposing his prosthetic legs and say, “Just like you don’t realise I’m wearing two right now.”
In cases of most other prosthetic feet, which are said to be passive, the ones used for Rex are active and automatically adjust to uneven ground such as stairs or ramps. “They use a neural interface to communicate with nerves in a patient’s stump and replicate the action of the amputee’s Achilles tendon, ankle and calf muscle”. Herr even told Meyer that the artificial legs work so well that he has three sets he uses just for climbing. Lucky Rex also was given a fully mobile motorised knee joint called the Genium. The Genium is so technologically advanced it can be used to walk backwards, walk up and down steps, side step and even walk over obstacles instead of walking around them.
The whole concept of being able to create a humanoid robot with the technology that is changing with every passing year is astonishing but what is more incredible is that apart from the prosthetic limbs, some of the artificial organs are also in use these days. Although the artificial kidneys, spleen, pancreas used in Rex are still in their developmental stage, some of the other organs have already been tried and tested. For example, over a thousand patients have been recipients of the artificial heart created by SynCardia Systems, some who have been using it five years on. The heart is battery powered and is only intended as a temporary solution until a suitable donor organ can be found for the patient. Also the artificial trachea used for Rex has been successfully transplanted for the first time in 2011 by surgeons in Sweden.
The mind boggles when you think that what we felt was farfetched a few decades ago is now a reality. We just have to look no further than the Paralympics to see what amazing feats can be achieved with the help of prosthesis and by looking at Rex, we are realising how much further technology can take us.