A real Bionic Woman

I remember thinking two things as a teenager watching the Bionic Woman. “They’ll be able to do that some day if they ever solve the power problems” and “Whoever came up with the DaaaatTaTaTaTaTaTa sound should be shot.” Today’s frontpage, color story in the LA Times features the newest bionic woman.

Now I would argue she is more a cyborg than a bionic person. As I understand it, bionics (AKA biomimetics) deals with taking patterns and structures from nature and using them to create designs. There are several examples of biomimicry in recent years. One example uses the nanostructures found on lotus leaves to create hydrophobic surfaces (see here). Using biological structures in architecture has also become increasingly popular. Cyborgs on the other hand are people with hi-tech stuff implanted or attached (think Seven of Nine). Thanks to a couple of bad TV-series in the 70’s, the word bionics is (mis-)used to mean cybernetics. Note: neither of these are to be mistaken for body modification, which is stuffing low-tech stuff into your body.

Take home lesson:
Bionics:  Nature –> Engineered stuff
Cyborg: Engineered stuff  –> Person
Body Modification: ick, ick, ick.

Anyway, thought controlled prosthesis have been around for several years. The improvement here seems to be the amount of control and variability allowed in the new system. Now thought control isn’t quite right, the control comes from implanting sensors near nerves that were used to control the muscles in the now missing limb. This allows the prosthetic to fulfil some function by thinking about moving phantom limb. Your brain fires a signal which goes to the nerve and the signal from that nerve is picked up by the sensor and relayed to the prosthesis. The prosthesis then moves.

There are two really tough engineering problems here. Getting the weight of the prosthesis down and having something with enough power to run all day.

Reducing the weight is the “easier” of the two. While there are limits to how small effective motors or actuators can be, I would guess a consistent use of hi-tech materials (carbon fiber bones for example) and miniaturisation of the electronics involved could reduce the weight. Here the limiting factor probably isn’t the doable, it’s the cost.

The real problem is powering the thing. One of the major weight penalties in electrical gadgetry, like notebooks or cybernetic arms, is the battery pack. Now imagine having to go through life a) with a laptop battery strapped to you and b)having to recharge your arm every few hours. This would be a bummer. There is one highlight on this front though. Building better rechargeable batteries is a major research goal of the military. When the military looks at something, you know lots of money will be tossed in that direction. (Most of it will probably miss its mark, but thats another story) But, even if civilian use of these technologies will only be one generation behind the military components, any improvement should be welcomed.

I, for one, am really happy for the worlds newest bionic woman cyborg.

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