He was one of the television hits of the 1970s, the Six Million Dollar Man with his super-enhanced vision and reconstructed bionic limbs that allowed him to run at incredible speeds and jump huge distances.
It was all science fiction but, four decades later, the fantasy is starting to become reality as science comes up with ever more advanced ways of tackling physical infirmity. The Six Million Dollar Man was an American television series about a former astronaut, Steve Austin played by Lee Majors, who was given bionic implants after a terrible accident. The show, based on Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg, ran for five seasons from 1974 to 1978 and spawned several movies. It was all very far-fetched but science has been taking the idea and developing its own version.
Take advances made in San Jose, California, in the United States as an example, where scientists have developed a system that aids those with sight loss (one of the Bionic Man’s enhancements was incredible vision). The latest system, using contact lenses and eyeglasses, is controlled by the eyes: a wink of the right eye zooms in and a wink of the left eye zooms out. The technology relies on contact lenses that contain tiny aluminum telescopes that interact with a pair of eyeglasses to move between normal and 3x magnification. The telescopes were first developed with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funding as super-thin cameras for aerial drones but they were adapted as an aid for people with age-related macular degeneration, the loss of light receptors on the inner surface of the eye that blurs the centre of the visual field.
Now, optical engineer Eric Tremblay of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, has revealed a new accessory that may make the contact lenses more appealing for the average person by making them more reactive. When a user covers one of the reflectors by winking, the glasses change their polarization. Two kinds of polarized light take two different paths through the contact lenses, activating the normal or magnified view. The research team, which includes the University of California, San Diego as well as experts at Paragon Vision Sciences, Innovega, Pacific Sciences and Engineering, and Rockwell Collins, described the system as ‘a huge leap’ forward for people with age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness among older adults in the Western world. Meanwhile, work is under way in the UK on another facet of the Bionic Man, this time a hand that can sense pressure and temperature and transmit the information to the brain.
The £1.4m research project led by Newcastle University and involving experts from the universities of Leeds, Essex, Keele, Southampton and Imperial College London, aims to develop electronic devices that connect to the forearm neural networks to allow two-way communications with the brain. Reminiscent, the team say, of Luke Skywalker’s artificial hand in Star Wars, the electrodes in the bionic limb would wrap around the nerve endings in the arm. This would mean that for the first time the hand could communicate directly with the brain, sending back information about temperature and pressure. Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and led by Dr Kianoush Nazarpour, a lecturer in Biomedical Engineering at Newcastle University, the team hope to develop technologies to give amputees a limb that more closely mirrors the real thing.
Dr Nazarpour, who is part of Newcastle University’s Biomedical Engineering team, said: “The UK leads the way in the design of prosthetic limbs but until now one of the limiting factors has been the technology to allow the hand to communicate with the brain.
“If we can design a system that allows this two-way communication it would help people to naturally reach out and pick up a glass, for example, whilst maintaining eye contact in a conversation, or pick up an apple without bruising it.
“This will advance the field of prosthetics, provide enhanced function to prosthesis users, and also reduce the time involved to learn how to use the device because the movements will come naturally.
“The technology will also have applications for patients with neurological conditions where reduced sensation is a factor.”
Steve Austin it might not be but technology is well on the way towards breakthroughs that were just the stuff of fiction in 1970s.