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Get Ready for the Real Bionic Man

Science fiction is turning into science fact, experts say

TUESDAY, April 4, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The cyborgs are coming.

Human-machine hybrids, they will carry 100-pound loads over long distances, develop artificial arms, hands and legs, and scan their surroundings with powerful bionic eyes.

But don't worry -- the science whizzes who designed them say ordinary humans have nothing to fear.

"Integrating machines with human life is part of the natural progression of technology," said Homayoon Kazerooni, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

His team astounded the scientific world in 2004 after it introduced BLEEX, a wearable robotics system with its own set of legs. BLEEX tracks the wearer's every movement as it helps him or her carry enormous loads for miles without tiring.

The device, designed right now for industrial or military use, is in the fine-tuning stage at this point, Kazerooni said.

"It's a 'lower-extremity exoskeleton,' " he said. "It looks like another person walking right behind you, with its own sensors and onboard computer. It simply walks behind you and takes the load."

Kazerooni was just one of several bionics experts convened for a special press conference Monday in San Francisco, part of the annual Experimental Biology 2006 meeting.

Many Americans over 40 have vivid memories of the original bionic man, TV's Col. Steve Austin. In those days, making a person "better, stronger, faster" by incorporating machinery into or outside his or her body was the stuff of the future.

But Kazerooni points out that bionics -- using technology to extend the body's potential -- actually has a very long history.

"You use glasses, and they help you to see better; you carry a cell phone to communicate with people," he pointed out. "It was always there. But now, it's becoming more organic, more integrated -- we already have artificial hips, remember."

His lab is just one of many across the country doing this kind of work. Also on Monday's panel was William Craelius, the Rutgers University researcher who created Dextra, the first multi-finger artificial hand.

Dextra works on the premise that muscles and nerves at the point of amputation still "remember" the missing hand and work as if it were still there. Craelius, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Rutgers, pointed out that much hand movement originates higher up the wrist and arm anyway.

"The assumption is that the brain and residual [arm] muscles are intact," Craelius said. Dextra's built-in computer picks up data from sensors lying next to the stump end of the arm and then translates that to simple movements -- such as grasping -- in the artificial hand. "There are certain patterns that we associate with different grasps," Craelius said.

There are limitations, however, and Craelius said "we're still decades away from reproducing the dexterity of the human hand. But this model can open doors, turn keys, that sort of thing."

Then there's the bionic eye.

Daniel Palanker, the Stanford University physicist whose team designed the optical device, explained that it is intended for people who've lost their retinas, usually through degenerative diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa or age-related macular degeneration.

Those diseases kill off the retina's photoreceptors, and the bionic eye seeks to replicate that lost activity. It consists of a wallet-sized portable computer, a tiny solar-powered battery implanted in the eye, and a light-sensing chip half the size of a grain of rice, also implanted in the eye. The final component is a tiny video camera mounted on virtual-reality style infrared goggles.

When everything's working right, this machinery stimulates cells in the retina to perceive images, just as the now-defunct photoreceptors used to do. Initial trials in rats suggest a bionic eye is feasible, and the researchers are hoping someday to achieve 20/80 vision capability -- enough to read large print and recognize faces.

Other innovations covered by the panel include an artificial wrist that's proven a godsend for patients crippled by arthritis, and super-accurate computer simulations of real-life human movement -- essential to the development of new prosthetics.

Kazerooni said his lab is currently fine-tuning the BLEEX exoskeleton and plans to roll out their final version soon, for use by healthy individuals.

"But we're also looking for partners -- engineers, physicians, scientists -- to make this device available for people who have a limited ability to walk," he said. "That's our next step -- to design these for people like post-stroke patients, or even people with short-term disability, such as a broken leg. If we get the right resources, it won't take more than three years to create such a device."

So, forget The Terminator, bionics is nothing to be scared of, he said.

"If you have a firefighter who's carrying major equipment, we want to make his life a little bit easier and help him avoid injuries. Or a guy working in an auto-assembly line. It's all about making human life better."

More information

Find out more about BLEEX at the Berkeley Robotics Laboratory.

SOURCES: Homayoon Kazerooni, Ph.D., professor, mechanical engineering, and director, Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley; William Craelius, Ph.D., associate professor, biomedical engineering, Rutgers University, Piscataway, N.J.; April 3, 2006, news release, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology
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