from science fiction to scientific fact

“We can rebuild it. We have the technology. was a well-known phrase in the 1970s. It comes from long-running American TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, about fictional astronaut Steve Austin – “a barely alive man” – who was reconstructed after his experimental plane crashed. His right arm, both legs and left eye were replaced with bionic implants that improved his strength, speed and vision far above human standards.

It was science fiction of the 1970s. But like many features of that era, it becomes science fact of the 2020s. Bionic limbs, feet, and hands are well-established products and thought-triggered movement. alone is no longer a daydream of “science fiction”, but a race in the real world to achieve a global breakthrough.

For many people with disabilities, new and emerging bionics is a “must have” – expensive to buy but vital for life itself. In people without disabilities, human-machine interfaces are also intriguing and exciting… but for very different reasons. For some, the moment of “singularity” – when humans and robots merge – cannot come quickly enough.

Restoring human function with bionic devices, implants, and organs makes sense for the most part, but increasing human performance raises ethical questions. To understand and solve them, Australian National University associate professor Catherine Ball says we need to explore the potential of bionic technologies.

“Bionics, robotics and drone technologies are at the forefront of ethics because they involve the human body. They could also be a matter of life and death for some and offer a “new normal” in health, mobility and well-being for many others.

“If we don’t create and perfect these technologies now, we will never be able to participate in ethical conversations about what is good and what is not.

For Dr Dimity Dornan AO, who founded Hear and Say some 30 years ago to “train the brain” to learn to hear and speak using the bionic ear or cochlear implant, breakthroughs in the brain. human bionics that we will be witnessing tomorrow, next year, and the next decade are amazing.

“We have already seen new replacement ears developed for children born with microtia [a birth defect where the outer ear is not fully developed] and the world’s first biocompatible skull successfully implanted right here in Australia, ”she said.

“Bionic implants and organs lie at the doorstep of regenerative medicine with a range of implants set to seamlessly merge with our biology in the decades to come. We also see “electro-eutics” [electric stimulation treatments] which could well replace pharmaceuticals in the treatment of a range of diseases.

Dr Dornan will speak at the World of Drones and Robotics Congress 2021 in November, along with Professor Ball, Professor David Lloyd from Griffith University and Max Ortiz Catalan, Professor of Bionics at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

Professor Ortiz Catalan will reveal another way in which reality catches up with the science fiction of Six Million Dollar Man. He will talk about the first artificial arm that integrates directly into bones, nerves and muscles, and he plans to implant the first artificial leg in a human patient next year.

“We’ve been using bioelectrical signals to operate prosthetic arms since the 1970s, but the control is limited to opening and closing the hand,” he said. “The way we do amputations hasn’t really changed in centuries, but by rebuilding the body we can get more signals to control every finger of a hand.”

Today, explained Professor Ortiz Catalan, the best prosthetic legs use computer processors to translate the movement of the wearer’s body into a walking movement, but do not receive any neural commands.

He sees a revolution in amputation surgery on the horizon. “Many of the technologies currently being studied will hopefully become widely available and transform the way amputations are performed.

“The options for patients with limb loss, spinal cord injuries and sensory-motor impairments will be much broader in five years. There will be a lot more reconstruction than just cutting the limb. “

Professor Ortiz Catalan will speak at a panel discussion at the November Congress – Human Bionics: Where Robotics Meets Biology, where he will be joined by Bionics Queensland CEO Dr Robyn Stokes.

Dr Stokes said the panel will discuss potential breakthroughs in bionics over the next 25 years and the growing fusion of bionics, robotics and drones. She sees artificial intelligence playing an increased role in this interface, citing the example of a pancreas activated by artificial intelligence that will change the lives of people with fragile diabetes, producing very large fluctuations in blood sugar, in just a few minutes. barely years.

“The artificial intelligence of this solution, invented by the mathematician of Brisbane, Dr Nigel Greenwood, will offer people who live an extremely fluctuating experience [blood glucose levels] a true precision medicine solution, ”she said. “The person can have a cell phone or iPad app that tells them the exact dose needed at a given time, or they can have a micro-pulsed delivery solution implanted. It will all be a matter of choice. “

Ultimately, Dr Stokes said, the availability of life-changing medical bionics will be determined less by technology than by funding.

“The most advanced bionic members available today offer many benefits, but they are still quite expensive. Health systems, reimbursement systems and the level of support for people with disabilities to access the most advanced bionic devices and treatments available vary widely from country to country.

This story was produced as part of a media partnership between and the World of Drones and Robotics Congress to be held at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Center on November 15-16, 2021.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley by email.

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