Monday, 4 August 2014

The Trouble with Bionics

     My late uncle always used to call his cochlear implant his "bionic ear". Of course, it was not accurate. Bionics, at least as popularly presented, means artificial body parts which function better than the originals, and the person connected to them is called a "cyborg" (cybernetic organism): part human and part robot. The concept burst into public view with Martin Caldin's 1972 novel, Cyborg, and particularly with the television series based on it, The Six Million Dollar Man the following year.
     The story followed Steve Austin, seriously crippled after an accident, provided with replacement robotic parts superior to his own. The details varied from the book to TV. In his television incarnation, he received a bionic eye which could both double as a telescope and see in the dark, along with two bionic legs which could run much faster than any human being, and a bionic right arm with tremendous strength.
     I remember in one scene something huge - say a quarter or half a ton - came falling towards him, when he grabbed it with his bionic arm and held it in place before it hit the ground. It was at that point, for me, that the penny dropped. Sure, his bionic arm could lift it, but that arm was attached to a very human shoulder, and the shoulder to a very human spinal cord. The force of the weight would pass right down both of them, either ripping off his robotic arm, or crushing his spine. As for his bionic legs, I wonder whether they attached to the bony stumps of his femurs, or fitted into the sockets of his hips. And what about the muscles which normally attach to the leg at one end, and to the pelvis at the other? At the very least, running at high speed is going to put tremendous strain on his hip joints, and irreparably tear the muscles.
     That's the trouble with bionic limbs. Everything is connected to everything else. But I suppose it is theoretically possible to make an artificial sense organ, such as an eye, superior to the original.

     The next article will explain the effects of germs on invading aliens.
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