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BIONIC HUMANS


BIONIC HUMANS
Bionics experts attempt to build mechanical and electronic devices to mimic biological functions. With the exception of the brain, the human body can essentially be broken down and rebuilt using a combination of mechanical, electronic and biological technologies.

A bionic limb strips human biology back to its constituent parts. Tough materials like aluminium and carbon fibre replace the skeleton, motors and hydraulics move the limb, while springs replace the tendons that store and release elastic energy. A computer controls motion and wires relay electrical signals, as nerves would have done in a real limb. Users are now even able to control these limbs with their minds (see ‘The power of thought’).

Technology is also in development to replace individual muscles and tendons following injury. The synthetic muscles are made from a polymer gel, which expands and contracts in response to electrical currents, much like human muscle. The tendons are made from fine synthetic fibres designed to imitate the behaviour of connective tissue.
The mechanical nature of limbs makes them excellent candidates for building robotic counterparts, and the same applies to the human heart. The two ventricles, which supply blood to the body and lungs, are replaced with hydraulically powered chambers. However, it’s not just the mechanical components of the human body that can be replaced; as time goes on, even parts of the complex sensory system can be re-created with technology.
Cochlear implants, for example, use a microphone to replace the ear, while retinal implants use a video camera to stand in for the human eye. The data that they capture is then processed and transformed into electrical impulses, which are delivered to the auditory or optic nerve, respectively, and then on to the brain. Bionic touch sensors are also in development. For example, the University of California, Berkeley, is developing ‘eSkin’ – a network of pressure sensors in a plastic web.
This could even allow people to sense touch through their bionic limbs. Replacing entire organs is one of the ongoing goals of bionic research. However, breaking each organ down and recreating all of its specialised biological functions is challenging. If only part of an organ is damaged, it’s simpler to replace the loss of function using bionics. In type 1 diabetes, the insulin producing beta cells of the pancreas are destroyed by the immune system. Some patients are now fitted with an artificial pancreas: a computer worn externally, which monitors blood sugar and administers the correct dose of insulin as required.
Entire organ replacements are much more complicated, and scientists are turning back to biology to manufacture artificial organs. By combining 3D printing with stem cell research, we are now able to print cells layer by layer and build up tissues. In the future, this could lead to customised organ transplants made from the recipient’s very own cells.
Advances in bionics mean that already limbs are emerging that exceed human capabilities for weight bearing and speed. That said, the sheer complexity of our internal organs and how they interact means that it is not yet possible to fully replace man with machine. But maybe it’s just a matter of time…