by Gregor Wolbring
September 15, 2007
News of bionic and artificial organ technologies seems to be appearing at an ever increasing rate. I covered some of the consequences in my column on "NBICS and Other Convergences: The Paralympics, the Olympics, Human Enhancement Technology and the Doping Discourse."
In this column I will list a variety of bionic advances that readers can follow up on. I dealt with brain machine interfaces in another column and will not cover them again here.
A "Top 10 Artificial Technologies Ready to Create a Real Human Being" list was published in 2007:
- Artificial wombs
- Artificial gut
- Artificial heart
- Artificial blood
- Artificial blood vessels
- Artificial bones
- Artificial skin
- Artificial retina
- Artificial limbs
- Artificial body parts from stem cells
A webpage called Building the Bionic Man covers bionic eyes, ears, brain (see my artificial hippocampus column), tongue, nose, heart, lung, arm, kidney, liver, stomach, legs, and anus. Neural prostheses, spinal cord prostheses, subvocal speech, cranial, neural, and other implants. Artificial joints, artificial muscles, artificial noses and tongues, nose on a chip, bioartificial kidney, artificial liver, artificial lungs, artificial discs, and so on. I wrote about many bionic developments here in 2006. Nanowerk wrote recently about “Nanobionics - where the boundaries between electronics and biology become fuzzy."
As of 2000, more than 20,000 people worldwide have bionic ears. The robo-ankle may hit stores as early as the third quarter of 2008. The Rheo-Knee has been available for a while now. One can read about the bionic foot here, and about bionic legs with artificial intelligence here.
Scientists at John's Hopkins University, in Baltimore have demonstrated for the first time that neural activity recorded from a monkey's brain can control fingers on a robotic hand, making it play several notes on a piano. The i-Limb Bionic Hand has its own YouTube video (see also here). A variety of links on bionic arms and legs can be found here.
The world's first direct electrical link between nerve cells and photovoltaic nanoparticle films has been achieved by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) and the University of Michigan. This is seen as one way nano research can help in the development of artificial retinas. Other recent coverage of bionic vision can be found here, here and here.
Some scientists create artificial bones using inkjet printing. Some transplant artificial lymph nodes. Others study artificial placenta. Others have genetically engineered skin cells to make artificial skin. And then there is the artificial cornea and artificial gut. Artificial synapses were created between nanoelectronic devices and mammalian neurons.
The list goes on and on.
The Choice is Yours
Forbes.com recently conducted a poll to determine what attribute humans most wanted to possess. The results were as follows:
- Smarter brain (403 votes - 29 %)
- Wings (230 votes - 17 %)
- Breathe underwater (147 votes - 11 %)
- Stylish, furry tail (127 votes - 9%)
- Don’t want to be human at all (103 votes - 8%)
- Night vision (61 votes - 4%)
- Extra arms (51 votes - 4%)
- Fur (37 votes - 3%)
- Eagle-eye vision (34 votes - 2%)
- Perfect as is.(34 votes - 2%)
- Great speed (29 votes - 2%)
- Better-protected genitals (26 votes - 2%)
- More physical strength (17 votes - 1%)
- Camouflage skin (13 votes - 1%)
- Stronger sense of smell (10 votes - 1%)
- Chitinous armor (9 votes - 1%)
- Better balance (7 votes - 1%)
- Acute hearing (6 votes - 0 %)
- Fangs (6 votes - 0%)
- Eyes on stalks (5 votes - 0%)
- Horns (5 votes - 0%)
- Pouch (3 votes - 0%)
- Stronger sense of touch (2 votes - 0%)
- Extreme height (2 votes - 0%)
- Stronger sense of taste (0 votes - 0 %)
I am not sure how seriously we should take this, but it’s interesting in the context of this discussion. With many bionic parts nearing completion, will some of these wishes lie within the realm of possibility?
We have to ask many questions -- among them the question of cost. It is evident that the increasing availability of implants and the development of more and more types of implants, together with the increased medicalization of the human body, must have an impact on the cost base of the public health and health care system, insurance companies, and private households.
I think it’s time to start a discourse that goes beyond the marvel of technology and contemplates what will be available for whom and how -- a discourse that looks at impacts like the changing understanding of ‘self’ and body image. There is more to this than just modifying oneself. Some of that is outlined by Nanowerk in a recent piece called “Nanotechnology's benefits for disabled people.”
Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist, bioethicist, disability/vari-ability/ability studies scholar, and health policy and science and technology governance researcher at the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University; Part Time Professor at Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, Canada; Member CAC/ISO - Canadian Advisory Committees for the International Organization for Standardization section TC229 Nanotechnologies; Member of the editorial team for the Nanotechnology for Development portal of the Development Gateway Foundation; Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International; and former Member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (2003-2007 maximum terms served). He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website, moderates a weblog for the International Network for Social Research on Disability, and authors a weblog on NBICS and its social implications.