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Phil-osophically Speaking - April 16, 2010

The Age of Bionics

“Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive: Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.”

That was the opening narration of the 1970s hit television series the Six Million Dollar Man starring Lee Majors. After being pulled from the wreckage of a supersonic plane, the test pilot’s broken body is rebuilt using bionic technology that enables him to perform superhuman feats.

The age of bionics is here. We may only be on the ground level of its technological possibilities but its future shows a world of promise. Broken bodies are, like the premise of the television series, the mainsprings of its science. The etymology of bionics explains it all: From “bi” (as in biology or life) plus “onics” as in things mechanical. Weld them together and the result is mechanical systems that behave like living organisms.

The beneficiaries of this science are soldiers in the Afghanistan and Iraq war who have lost limbs, but also victims of tragic accidents and scrofulous diseases. The science behind bionics is extraordinary: An array of sensors track muscle movements through surgically rerouted nerves where prostheses respond to the relayed signals. Artificial arms and legs, via motorized springs, begin to move; those without legs can now walk using powered limbs and those without hands to grip now grasp with powered hands. Bio-engineers express confidence that one day pressure-sensing pads on the fingertips could give the sensation of actual feeling.  

Bionics has even challenged the dark and silent frontiers of blindness and deafness. New hardware in and around the eyeball that works with a computer transmitting, via electrodes, visual stimuli to the optic nerve has enabled some victims of blindness to see shadowy silhouettes of objects and vestiges of color. Cochlear implants are working similar miracles with the deaf. Surgeons implant a thin line of electrodes connected to a miniature microphone and position them in each cochlear, the part of the inner ear that detects sound vibrations. A storm of electrodes then emits signals that can be interpreted by the auditory nerve that produces the sensation of sound in a once soundless world. The potential of bionics is so great that even those with serious spinal cord injuries, including quadriplegics, have reason to hope in the future.    

Not everything, of course, works optimally —- much less like the Six Million Dollar Man. The objective, however, is not to surpass nature but to imitate it. This is difficult enough when one takes into account the majesty of nature, its mysterious qualities and its miraculous properties. Centuries ago, Francis Bacon challenged science to relieve the estate of mankind. Since then, vast continents of ignorance have been traversed; and medicine, the most humanizing of the sciences, has provided succor and healing for countless millions where none existed before.

This technology works as much with the body as it does with the brain, a relationship that is the most complex in the universe. The inscrutability of how a physical body and an immaterial mind melds into a single, operative entity is as baffling as ever. This subtle juxtaposition between the physical body and the mysterious invisible force that animates it (ostensibly from the mind) has perplexed philosophers, theologians and scientists alike. The good news is we don’t have to comprehend its knotty perplexities; we only have to see what works.

The one thing that is crystal clear, however, is that we not only possess a physical body but the physical body, paradoxically, possesses us. Not just the core but also the very shadow of our existence is inextricably connected to it. The body defines us; it has shape, contours and mass — its senses are our highways to the world; the very means by which we not only perceive everything around us but also how we come to know our own being.

The idea of the disembodied can only exist in the realm of science fiction, like stories of the Invisible Man. Even in religious eschatology, speculation of the afterlife revolves around the concept of the risen body — the glorified body. The mind, protean with originality, and fertile in its astonishing creativity, has been the medium that has imagined ways outside itself to restore the body’s injured and incapacitated parts. In humanity’s great historical quest to conform the world to meet our own needs, to compensate for our weaknesses and vulnerabilities to assure, indeed, our very survival we have invented, forged and improvised with remarkable ingenuity devices, mechanisms and, later, machines that could bend the power of nature to our bidding.

These inventions have not only transformed the physical world to our benefit but, as polymath Dr. Jonathan Miller once observed, inventions have transformed how our mind works. Miller intuitively points out that it would have been impossible to imagine how anyone could have made sense of the heart before we knew what a pump was. Before the invention of automatic gun turrets, there was no model to explain the finesse of voluntary muscular movement.

So the machine era has, in effect, immensely fostered our understanding on how a healthy body works. With research comes knowledge, with knowledge comes understanding and with understanding comes progress. Bionics has brought machine technology into a new and exciting dimension; enabling us to take irreparably damaged human parts and through bioengineering restore, however primitively for now, the great and grand designs of nature.