Things have come a long way since The Six Million Dollar Man.
Actually bionics began long before science fiction was invented, with wooden toes in Ancient Egypt. As more people started surviving catastrophic injuries in wars, the technology progressed.
These days most of us have a friend or relative with some kind of bionic implant, whether it be a knee, hip, pacemaker or something else.
Bionic eyes, artificial bones, 3D printed body parts, smart knees, and artificial organs are now part of daily reality, and not just science fiction.
As with most things however, the sophistication and quality of these devices depends a lot on how much money you have to spend.
From Captain Hook to Iron Man
When Paul de Gelder lost his leg and arm to a bull shark, in Sydney Harbour, he was working for the Australian Navy, so he got the best prosthetics available. As a result, he managed to walk, swim and eventually dive again.
Modern prosthetics contain electrodes that respond to muscular signals in residual limbs, leading to surprising levels of control. The very latest artificial limbs respond to human thoughts.
For land mine victims in impoverished parts of the world, the outcomes are very different. Cheap, sophisticated technologies like 3D printing are gradually levelling the playing field though.
Better than human?
Because technology is not limited by the pace of evolution, developments in this area are progressing remarkably fast, to the point where some bionically augmented people are not so much disabled, as becoming super-beings.
People with damaged spinal columns can walk again with Avatar-style exoskeletons, and there is even research that could lead to in-brain bionic implants to deal with conditions like Alzheimer’s in future.
There are also devices such as artificial tongues and noses which may eventually be merged with humans who have lost the associated senses.
With artificial organs (prototypes of the spleen, lungs, pancreas have been developed) the biggest challenge is dealing with the human immune system, and clotting issues, but these problems are gradually being overcome.
In Australia, neurosurgeon Jeffrey Rosenfeld has developed artificial eyes which bypass the normal visual pathway. Future developments of this technology might lead to Terminator-style better than 20-20 vision.
Future cyber-humans are likely to be able to ‘see’ frequencies beyond the conventional visual range, along with data augmentation in the visual field, (you’ll no longer need to check your phone hundreds of times a day).
In terms of organs, it’s predicted that bespoke human parts will be able to be constructed on demand, without the need for transplants.
Eventually it might be difficult to define where the human stops and the machine starts, and then we’ll be in the ethical minefield of Westworld and Blade Runner.
When the question of who is human becomes impossible to answer, it might be time to extend rights to machines, and maybe Medicare cards as well!