The Insane and Exciting Future of the Bionic Body

Bertolt Meyer pulls off his left forearm and gives it to me. It’s smooth and black, and the hand has a clear silicone cover, like an iPhone case. Beneath the rubbery skin are skeletal robotic fingers of the sort you might see in a sci-fi movie—the “cool factor,” Meyer calls it.

“Can I touch it?” I ask. “Go ahead,” he says. I run my hand along the sticky silicone and it helps dispel my unease—the stump may look strange, but the arm feels strong and healthy.

Meyer, 33, is slightly built and has dark features and a friendly face. A native of Hamburg, Germany, currently living in Switzerland, he was born with only an inch or so of arm below the left elbow. He has worn a prosthetic limb on and off since he was 3 months old.

The first one was passive, just to get his young mind accustomed to having something foreign attached to his body. When he was 5 years old, he got a hook, which he controlled with a harness across his shoulders. He didn’t wear it much, until he joined the Boy Scouts when he was 12. “The downside is that it is extremely uncomfortable because you’re always wearing the harness,” he says.

This latest iteration is a bionic hand, with each finger driven by its own motor. Inside of the molded forearm are two electrodes that respond to muscular signals in the residual limb: Sending a signal to one electrode opens the hand and to the other closes it.

Activating both allows Meyer to rotate the wrist an unnerving 360 degrees. “The metaphor that I use for this is learning how to parallel park your car,” he says as he opens his hand with a whir. At first, it’s a little tricky, but you get the hang of it.

Touch Bionics, the maker of this mechanical wonder, calls it the i-limb. The name represents more than marketing. Improved software, longer-lasting batteries and smaller, more power-efficient microprocessors—the technologies driving the revolution in personal electronics—have ushered in a new era in bionics.

In addition to prosthetic limbs, which are more versatile and user-friendly than ever before, researchers have developed functioning prototypes of artificial organs that can take the place of one’s spleen, pancreas or lungs.

And an experimental implant that wires the brain to a computer holds the promise of giving quadriplegics control over artificial limbs. Such bionic marvels will increasingly find their way into our lives and our bodies. We have never been so replaceable.

I met Meyer on a summer day in London, in the courtyard of a 19th- century cookie factory. Meyer is a social psychologist at the University of Zurich, but his personal experiences with prosthetics have instilled in him a fascination with bionic technology. He says the past five years, in particular, have seen an explosion of innovation.

As we chatted over coffee, engineers worked on a novel demonstration in a nearby building. During the past few months, they had been gathering prosthetic limbs and artificial organs from around the world to be assembled into a single, artificial structure named the Bionic Man. You can see the startling results in a documentary airing October 20 on the Smithsonian Channel…

http://zen-haven.com/the-insane-and-exciting-future-of-the-bionic-body/

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