Imagine a world where losing an arm means you can become even stronger; where losing your legs means you can run faster than ever before; where losing your vision means you will be able to see further and with more clarity than anyone with two eyes. These hypotheticals are not fantasy or science fiction, but mankind’s future. At the cross-section of biology and technology lies the field known as bionics, the study of mechanical systems that function like living organisms or parts of living organisms; and very likely, the driving force that will push mankind into its next stage of evolution.
In its early inception, bionics took the form of simple prostheses, artificial limbs attached to the body, whose purpose were to fill gaps in human anatomical structures. They were an attempt to repair broken bodies and sought to reduce limitations rather than optimize performance. Cinematic depictions of swashbuckling pirates have famously portrayed the archaic devices from which modern bionics originated. An amputee pirate might’ve attached a wooden leg or a hook for a hand in order to assist with anatomical functionality. Prosthetics such as these were merely simple stand-ins for their organic counterparts. A wooden peg-leg could help with balance and movement but could never perform with the same dynamic fluidity as the appendage it was meant to replace. However, bionics is currently undergoing a renaissance as scientists look to leave simple prosthetics in the past and move toward devices that play an active role in assisting the human body.
Researchers are now working to create “smart” prosthetic devices that actively communicate with the body in order to provide a more natural and realistic experience. The materials these devices are constructed from have improved by leaps and bounds since the days of wooden appendages. Materials such as carbon fiber are now being used to create high performing blades that can be used in athletic endeavors by Paralympic athletes in place of their legs. Aside from higher quality materials, prosthetics with computing capabilities allow an interface with the human body, a true melding of human and machine. Devices can now be attached to nerve endings, muscle fibers, and can have electrodes implanted in the cerebral and nervous systems, which allow for real time communication between the body and its bionic limb. The results are bionic feet that can flex and relax by sensing muscle contraction in order to give the user a more fluid and organic stride; or, mechanical hands that can open and close based on electrodes that sense brain activity to allow for more range of motion and the performing of delicate maneuvers. As modern technology begins to close the gap between organic and artificial limbs, one is left to wonder: what lies ahead?
The future of bionics will seek to improve upon the human body, to surpass the performance of organic mechanisms and carry humanity into a new age – to enhance. Science fiction has dreamt up many futuristic bionic enhancements, and some are now beginning to materialize. From wearable technology such as contacts lenses that allow for improved vision and an augmented reality experience, to mechanical exoskeletons which allow users to increase their strength, the future looks bright for bionic technology.
In the 1970s, Steve Austin, a fictional television character known as the “Bionic Man,” was implanted with various devices (a bionic eye and bionic leg and arm), which enhanced his overall performance. While the technology depicted was ahead of its time for the 1970s, it now seems that modern advancements in bionic technology might be able to produce such a person within this century. How long before we see organic limbs being replaced with bionic parts not because that limb was damaged or missing, but because it has been surpassed by its artificial counterparts?