In the 1970s, "The Six Million Dollar Man" and "The Bionic Woman" fueled imaginations about the possibilities of enhanced bionic replacement parts. In 2013, a team of real-life engineers at Shadow Robot Company assembled the Bionic Man: a robot that can talk, walk, and circulate blood through its body.
The subject of the upcoming Smithsonian Channel documentary "The Incredible Bionic Man," the 6-foot-tall robot caused more than one person to stop and look at the 2013 New York Comic Con. Taking time out for an in-booth interview, researcher and roboticist James Pope told Yahoo TV that his job was to go out and find all the parts.
"I was talking to everyone from roboticists, exoskeleton makers, bionic foot makers, and people who design leading prosthetic hands," Pope explained. "People who are pushing the boundaries with the artificial organs that they've made and trying to bring all these things together to create the Bionic Man as you see here."
Every single part, Pope continued, is our best shot at recreating a limb or an organ. His sum total is mankind's best attempt at creating one of its own."In some cases, we have parts that come very, very close to mimicking human ability. The ankles — for example — don't know you are walking. There's nothing from your brain into them to tell them you are walking; they just pick up on the signals that you are giving off, the movements you are giving off, and respond accordingly," he said.
Bionic hand, bionic man
Dr. Bertolt Meyer, a social psychologist at the University of Zurich, knows a little something about artificial limbs.
"My interest in the subject of bionics is more of a naïve and very personal one," Meyer explained. "I was born without my lower left arm and I have been recently fitted with a bionic hand that is currently on the market. I know what this technology has done for me. I know how great it is, and I have a very personal interest in it."
In the last three or four years, Dr. Meyer continued, there has been an explosion when it comes to artificial limbs, organs, and even artificial senses: "We have a lot of technologies around that a few years ago would have been thought science fiction. For example, the retinal implant that our bionic man is wearing: It is a device that will restore a sense of vision to blind individuals."
Watch a preview for "The Incredible Bionic Man" right here:
The Bionic Man showcases technological advances, but Meyer did say it raises other interesting questions.
"Who is entitled to this technology because it comes with a very high price tag?" he asked. "A good wheelchair for a person who is paralyzed and cannot walk anymore can cost maybe a few thousand dollars, a really good one. The bionic exoskeleton that restores a sense of walking to our Bionic Man will set you back more than $100,000. A lot of insurances won't cover that."
One of the lessons Dr. Meyer learned from the robot is that every limb requires a human being to interface with it: "Without a human being at the center, all this technology is pretty useless. That, for me, was quite comforting."
"The Incredible Bionic Man" premieres Sunday, October 20 at 9 p.m. on the Smithsonian Channel.