Flawed, like a real person

October 22, 2013

There was something off about the guy greeting visitors at the National Air and Space Museum last week. Until someone flipped the switch to turn on his artificial heart.

(Smithsonian Channel) (Smithsonian Channel)

“The Incredible Bionic Man” — on display in the museum through Dec. 11 — doesn’t just have a pulse. He has an artificial lung, kidney, spleen and pancreas. He has prosthetic limbs, a 3-D-printed skull and glasses that can mimic sight in blind people. And he has a documentary named after him airing on the Smithsonian Channel (and streaming at smithsonianchannel.com).

Bertolt Meyer hosts the program, which chronicles how the creation was cobbled together with the most advanced parts available. That includes the same style of hand that Meyer — who was born without his lower left arm — also wears. Its fingers bend at each joint and can grip with variable strength, as Meyer showed off Thursday at the launch of the exhibit. Then he spun his wrist 360 degrees. “A normal human limb cannot do that,” he said.

Scientists may soon develop parts that outperform the human body. When that happens, Meyer said, people could choose to replace healthy legs to run faster or swap in a heart with an extra 30 years of pumping power. Ethical questions abound about who would have access to these advances, he added. But society doesn’t have to worry about those scenarios just yet.

“While he demonstrates great achievements we’ve made, he also showcases the limitations,” Meyer said of his bionic pal. “The most important thing is that he’s dumb.”

Computer software makes limited conversation possible, but don’t expect a heart-to-heart. (He’s in a glass case at the museum, so visitors can’t test that out.) Another not-so-incredible feature: the missing stomach, liver and reproductive organs.

If this experiment is repeated in a decade, the results will likely be shaped by scientific collaborations sparked by the project, said Joan Taylor, a professor at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, who contributed her artificial pancreas: “That’s the future of medicine you see there.”

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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