Artificial retinas, carbon-fiber prosthetics-the bionic man and woman aren't just for prime-time TV anymore.
Engineering is often about the extraordinary—look no further than Curiosity’s successful touchdown on the Martian surface if you want proof of that—but Sunday's semifinal heat of the 400 m sprint in the London Olympic Games took it to a whole new level. There, Oscar Pistorius of South Africa raced into history on his Cheetah prosthetics, a double amputee running side-by-side with the general-classification athletes.
Forget about the Bionic Man. Technology is steadily offering ever more amazing solutions to address disabilities. With his carbon fiber prosthetics, Pistorius was able to not only qualify for the Olympics as a whole but to beat multiple able-bodied runners to transfer into the semifinals. More than anything, that's a tribute to the talent, determination, and skill of Pistorius, but he couldn't have done it without the right equipment. Without the right engineering. Compare his Cheetahs to the prosthetics available 20 years ago. Think about how rapidly materials, controls, and embedded technology are advancing—I don't know about you, but the thought of future gives me chills.
Of course the future is today in many places. Cheetah manufacturer Össur offers a range of sophisticated options such as active knees and even complete bionic legs. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, professor Hugh Herr and his bioengineering group are hard at work on a powered ankle-foot prosthetic that uses flexures and servo motors to add spring to the stride of amputees. The team developed an elastic actuator that harvests energy during the heel-strike portion of the stride, to release it in the next step. Instead of losing energy in the process of walking, users actually gained.
Perhaps even more extraordinary, artificial retinas promise to help those suffering from degenerative eye disease see again. In Europe, regulators approved Second Sight’s Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System for sale. In the Argus II, an image sensor in the patient's glasses captures and digitizes an image that is relayed wirelessly to an electrode array implanted in the eye. The array interfaces with the optic nerve, sending a signal that the brain learns to decode as an image. Meanwhile, competitor Nano Retina Inc. is working on a 72- x 72-pixel array, which provides sufficient resolution to allow a patient to recognize faces and watch television.
Already, it feels as though the sky is the limit. What’s the next level, wireless-enabled cranial implants to allow those paralyzed or suffering neuromuscular diseases to move again? What about memory? Could we someday work out a way to interface digital memory or processors to aid those suffering from dementia or who have undergone traumatic brain injury?
Okay, so that’s probably a reach, but who's to say? What do you think the next piece of extraordinary bioengineering will be? What kinds of technologies can we apply to solve disabilities and make people whole? What device should be we working toward? What's your big idea?