Fans of the popular 1970s television series, The Six Million Dollar Man, may be surprised to learn it was based on a true story.
In the TV version, an air force pilot named Steve Austin (played by actor Lee Majors) suffered a debilitating accident which provided scientists an opportunity to “rebuild” Austin by equipping him with “bionics,” or augmented body members. Austin was given superhuman upper body strength with a bionic arm, incredible speed with his bionic legs, and eagle-like vision with a bionic eye. Steve Austin was put to use as a secret agent of sorts, employed by the Office of Strategic Intelligence (OSI).
The story was largely based on the life of Japanese military pilot Kokusai Omocha, who was the first real Bionic Man. Omocha, like Austin, narrowly escaped death in a fighter plane crash. In 1964, Omocha became a human testing bed for robotic implants and limbs, some of which gave the pilot superhuman abilities.
Omocha was equipped with a bionic eye, actually a primitive infrared sensor originally designed as an artificial eye for the blind. It enabled him to see in complete darkness.
The most extraordinary of the bionic body parts was certainly Omocha’s arm. Its counter-weighted titanium frame had an intricate pulley system capable of lifting over 2,500 pounds. The whole arm was covered with artificial skin and made to look just like a normal human arm. The arm could even be wound up by being turned 15 to 20 times, and let go with a punch equivalent to being hit with a ton of bricks.
Omocha also had bionic legs, containing ratchet springs that enabled him to jump up to 30 feet into the air.
In 2004, the technology of robotics has significantly expanded and improved to provide new abilities for those in different research projects. Currently on the market are devices that harness brain or nerve impulses to help individuals to see, move, and communicate.
Providing Ability To Individuals Without Movement
Neurologist Philip Kennedy has a device to help a person who is totally paralyzed control a computer cursor and communicate through their thoughts. An electrode is surgically implanted in the person’s brain, and the signals it picks up are converted to software commands. Learning to use the device is a process of mental trial and error: The person thinks about making mouse movements and watches how thoughts affect the cursor.
Robotic Generated Vision
Surreal-looking spectacles designed by ophthalmologist Mark Humayun are helping blind people regain some sight. Artificial retinas are implanted into people’s eyes then connected via wires to small magnetic disks on the scalp. When a person wears the glasses, a miniature video-camera picks up ambient light and turns it into electrical impulses which are transmitted wirelessly to the magnetic discs and sent via the retinal implant to the brain’s optic nerve, recreating the natural sight pathway. The device offers individuals only fuzzy spots of light in a limited field, but Humayun hopes to improve resolution by determining which patterns of electrical pulses effectively stimulate the optic nerve.
Cochlear implants, small electronic devices implanted under the skin behind the ear, have helped 59,000 people worldwide regain some hearing. In a healthy person, the inner ear converts sound waves into electrical impulses, which activate a nerve that sends sound signals to the brain. A cochlear implant mimics this natural process. The device’s speech processor turns sounds picked up from a microphone into electronic bursts, which stimulate the auditory nerve to create the perception of sound in the brain.
Three years ago utility-line repairman Jesse Sullivan touched a live wire, burning his arms so badly they had to be amputated. But a technique devised by a biomedical engineer, Todd Kuiken, enables Sullivan to control his artificial left arm with his mind alone. Kuiken grafted nerve endings from Sullivan’s shoulder onto his chest muscle. When Sullivan thinks about raising his arm, his brain sends signals to the nerves that once initiated this function; the nerves spur his chest muscle to contract; and electrodes on the graft pick up those twitches and translate them into prosthetic-arm movements.
Robotics and bionic capabilities are a fast-moving scientific area being developed in many engineering and college establishments. The potential possibilities which they offer are amazing and forecasted to grow significantly during the next couple years. The Six Million Dollar Man is no longer a fabrication but rather a soon approaching reality.