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Real Bionic Man

While the 'Six Million Dollar Man' never came to be, scientific research brings us ever closer to a real bionic man.

By Futurism StaffPublished 8 years ago 18 min read

The rumor began in 1972. That's when Martin Caidin's science fiction novel Cyborg was published. The rumor intensified when ABC turned Cyborg into the popular television program Six Million Dollar Man. The hero of the TV series, Steve Austin, is an astronaut whose body was almost destroyed in a rocket-sled accident. But by using bits of plastic, titanium, sophisticated electronics, and a nuclear power pack, medical scientists put him back together again. Moreover, not only was old Steve restored to peak condition, he was given superhuman capabilities. He could leap over buildings, hear conversations half a mile away, see with zoom lens accuracy, and resist physical assaults that would fell a water buffalo. It all added up to good fun on the tube.

But the rumor is this: Many people speculate—and it's even been reported in the press—that the basic story line of Steve Austin is true. That somewhere— perhaps in a super secret Houston laboratory, or hidden among the serpentine medical facilities of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland– there exists a team of scientists who are churning out Cyborgs at an assembly line rate.

In search of the real Six Million Dollar Man, Dick Teresi went to Salt Lake City in 1978. Teresi's story of his journey, originally published in the November 1978 issue of OMNI magazine, delves into technological advances that are still being worked on today. By taking a look back at the technological aspirations of 1978, we can still see what the future holds.

The $8.4 Million Dollar Man

Salt Lake City is home of the University of Utah, which has the most comprehensive bioengineering program in America. Utah has in fact already outclassed the Six Million Dollar Man in at least one respect—cost. This year the university will spend $2.4 million more than was spent on the theoretical Steve Austin, a total of $8.4 million, on bioengineering, the application of space-age technology to the repair and maintenance of the human body. And Utah employs more than 360 engineers, medical scientists, and technicians who work directly on what are popularly called "bionics" projects.

I talked to Stephen C. Jacobsen, director of the university's Projects and Design Lab and inventor of many outrageously futuristic devices, including a "thinking" artificial arm. He had a simple response to the claim that the government has a secret Cyborg laboratory:

"Bullshit," said Jacobsen. "If the government already has a Cyborg, well then, they're wasting a lot of money on us." He refers to the fact that most of Utah's bioengineering budget comes from federal grants and contracts.

Prosthetics Over Cyborgs

Members of the bioengineering team at Utah agree that the future lies not in building Cyborgian robots, but in developing prostheses that mimic human body parts as closely as possible. Their research is focused on understanding how the body works and how to duplicate its physiology.

The university entered the field 14 years ago and in 1967 hired one of the pioneers of bioengineering, Willem J. Kolff, to head its artificial organs division. The Dutchborn Dr. Kolff invented the first artificial kidney during World War II. Working under near-secret conditions in the Nazi occupied Netherlands, he saved the lives of end-stage kidney patients who, before his invention, would have been doomed. Today, at Utah, his mission remains unchanged.

"Our aim," says Kolff, "is to restore people." And there are few places where a better job of it is being done. Utah boasts spectacular programs in artificial vision and hearing, the most successful artificial heart project in the world, a new polymer implant center that's developing plasticlike blood vessels, bladders, testicles, and other organs, and a whole assortment of other bioengineering marvels aimed at improving medical care. But for you Cyborg fans, let's begin with the device that's the most suggestive of science fiction— the Utah arm.

The Best Artificial Arm Ever Made

“I'm not trying to be obnoxious," said Stephen Jacobsen as he clipped an electronic sensor to my forearm, "but this is the best artificial arm ever made.” The electrode on my arm, explained Jacobsen, picks up electromyographic (EMG) signals. "Every time you flex a muscle, electrical activity is produced on the surface of your skin. It's crawling all over you."

A wire led from the sensor on my forearm to a 2.2 lb. artificial arm, which Jacobsen held just above the elbow by its stump socket. I held my arm straight at my side with my wrist relaxed. But when flexed my wrist and raised my hand, the artificial arm also moved upward, bending at the elbow. When I dropped my hand, the Utah arm dropped. Crudely speaking, the electrode had picked up the EMG signals on my forearm and transmitted them to a minicomputer in the arm, which in turn commanded the arm's electric motor to flex it up or down at the elbow.

Of course, the arm is meant to be used by an amputee, in which case it is fitted over the patient's stump. Electrodes would pick up the amputee's EMG signals from his limb remnant and from his shoulders, chest, and back on the affected side. Besides elbow flexion, the amputee can operate three other joint-movements: humeral rotation, wrist rotation, and hand closure.

The beauty of the Utah arm is that an armless person doesn't have to be taught how to use it. "The amputee has muscles left in his stump that don't pull on anything anymore. But they're still connected to his brain. We pick up those signals and have them control the arm," explains Jacobsen. "He doesn't have to do anything unnatural, like wink to close his hand." In effect, all the amputee must do is think and act as if he had a real arm and use his muscles as he did before amputation. The Utah arm does the rest.

Jacobsen believes in developing medical devices to the point where companies will want to pick them up and sell them to the public. And he often becomes so enthusiastic when ticking off the arm's commercial attributes that he sounds a bit like a high-class Cuisinart salesman.

"It has a nice, cosmetic exterior, a nice weight. It's quiet in operation, smooth, and doesn't pinch or cut clothing. It will go fast, slow, and lock in place. It will lift 3 lbs. and support 50 lbs. It has a great electronic package. The batteries are easily replaceable by the amputee; Even the circuits can be removed and replaced. It's repairable, maintainable, and can be sold at a reasonable price: under $3,000."

Benefitting Society

Jacobsen's style, though, stems simply from his desire to get ideas from the lab out into society. "So many ideas," he says, "just stay locked up in universities. The public pays for the research but never receives the benefits. It's like pouring money down a hole."

The Utah arm will be ready for home use in less than a year, according to Jacobsen. Right now it is still being tested in the Project and Design Lab. Several amputees have used the arm, but never outside the lab. Jacobsen and his staff fit a dozen or so electrodes to each subject. They then use a computer to adjust the arm's movements to the amputee's EMG signals. Each arm must be electronically tailored to its wearer.

But recently, while working out equations for the arm's control system, Jacobsen made what he calls an "awe-inspiring" discovery. He noticed the possibility of making a feedback loop in the circuitry. What you'd then have is an adapter-controller in the arm that would automatically adapt its movements to the amputee. "You'd just slap an arm on somebody," says Jacobsen, "and they'd reach an agreement about how they were going to behave."

Unrealistic Expectations

Even though the Utah arm may be the best artificial arm in the world, Jacobsen scoffs at the better-than-human, bionic concept of his work. Recently a major encyclopedia company made a film about the Project and Design Lab. Jacobsen is still reeling from the results. "Jesus, I just saw a copy of it and it's the absolute worst," he says. "The narrator turned out to be the actor who stars in The Bionic Woman [the TV show] and he was standing the whole time in front of this stupid panel of flashing lights that was obviously out of some tv series because the discs in the computer didn't spin right." The effect of this kind of publicity is an illusion that amputees fitted with these new devices will be bionic supermen.

Those people expecting a Cyborg strong arm have a long wait ahead of them. The Utah arm can lift little more than 3 lbs. And while Jacobsen says a 3 lb. lift is adequate for 95 percent of all normal human arm activity, it's still a far cry from a real arm's capacity, somewhere between 50 and 100 lbs.

To make the arm more competitive with its human counterpart, Jacobsen says four technological advances must be made. First, he needs better motors (compared to muscles, says Jacobsen, "motors are crummy"). Second, he needs a way to attach the prosthesis directly to the bone so it can support more weight. Other breakthroughs needed are a way to hook into the amputee's nerves for better control of the arm and some kind of feedback system so the wearer can tell without looking at it what his arm is doing.

But the Utah team understands the basic physiology of arm movement. And in this respect Jacobsen says the arm is designed as far as it can go: "We don't need a fancy new designer. We need new technology."

Artificial Vision

Michael G. Mladejovsky has the opposite problem. Director of the Neuroprostheses Program at Utah, he's been working on developing an artificial vision system for almost a decade. He says facetiously that building a device that serves as an eye is a "mere technological problem." He could build it right now with existing electronic hardware and techniques... if only he knew what it was supposed to do.

There's the rub. No one quite yet knows what happens in the brain that allows people to see. But no one has come closer to finding out than the scientists at Utah. William H. Dobelle started Utah's artificial vision program in 1969. Dobelle's role was to handle the physiological side—what goes on inside the visual cortex—while Mladejovsky handled the computer hardware end of the project.

They had been inspired by a 1968 discovery in England that blind persons, as well as people who see, can perceive spots of light called phosphenes when the visual cortex at the back of the brain is stimulated with electricity. These phosphenes usually appear as bright, white dots—patients describe them as "starlight"—but sometimes they're yellow-green, red, or blue-white.

The Utah team's idea was this: If you could stimulate the cortex of a blind person in an orderly way, you could draw pictures in his mind composed of phosphenes. And, in a way, that's exactly what they've done—by using electronics and surgery.

Three years ago Dobelle and Madejovsky found a willing subject, named Craig, who had been blinded in a gunshot accident. Craig agreed to some very scary brain surgery. The Utah team fashioned a 2" square Teflon wafer studded with 64 electrodes. Surgeons separated hemispheres of Craig's brain to expose the visual area, placed the wafer against it, then let the two brain halves drop back into position, holding the wafer in place. A wire connected to the implant was threaded through a hole in the back of the skull, then snaked forward between the skull and scalp to a button like connector that protruded (and still protrudes today) above Craig's right ear. Mladejovsky was thus able to connect the electrodes implanted in Craig's brain to computer, which in turn was connected to a TV camera. The camera was pointed at a simple image, such as a piece of masking tape on a dark-green screen. The visual image was simplified by the computer and arrived as electrical impulses to Craig's brain.

It worked. He was able to see the strip of tape as a white line and tell whether it was vertical, horizontal, or tilted at a 45-degree angle. The Utah team also stimulated letters of the Braille alphabet in Craig's brain, and he was able to visually read simple sentences like, "He had a cat and ball." Mladejovsky found there was no limit on speed; He could flash new letters to Craig faster than Craig could read by the normal tactile Braille method.

Continuing Progress

But blind people don't want artificial vision for reading but rather for mobility. They want to be able to navigate without being led around by another person or a dog. They want to find their way through unfamiliar territory without tripping over obstacles. They want to spot curbs, doors, follow crosswalks, see automobiles. Can this be done? Probably.

Mladejovsky foresees building a miniaturized television camera mounted in a dummy pair of glasses. The electronics needed to convert the images would be carried on a belt. A cable could be run from the electronics package up the person's back under his clothes and then concealed under his hair, finally connecting to the implant's exterior "button" and to the camera-carrying eyeglasses.

What would the blind person see? Mladejovsky believes phosphene-dot moving pictures could be created, similar to those you see on electronic scoreboards in baseball and football stadiums. Only the images would be much cruder. The device implanted in Craig's brain contains 64 electrodes, which produce 42 phosphenes (you don't get a 1:1 ratio). The next step is an implant with 256 electrodes.

Assuming that it will produce 256 useful phosphenes, which it might not, you'd still only be able to create crude, silhouette like images. But they would be adequate for navigation. Mladejovsky showed me two pictures, each composed of only 256 dots. One I could make out clearly as a man's bearded face. The second image, a pair of scissors, I didn't recognize. But Mladejovsky emphasizes that the blind person would have other clues to guide him in recognizing objects—sound, smell, an object's size in proportion to its surroundings. If he was standing at a crosswalk and he saw a large oblong object getting closer and closer, accompanied by the sound of an internal combustion engine, he would know enough to get out of its way. Mladejovsky thinks that eventually they may be able to stimulate as many as 500 useful phosphenes in a person's visual cortex. Of course, many problems have to be worked out first.

William Dobelle recently left Utah to head the artificial organs department of Columbia University in New York City, where he continues his work, trying to solve the physiological mysteries of eyesight. Craig is still part of the project, shuttling back and forth between Utah and New York.

"In the meantime," says Mladejovsky, "I'm just biding my time. I can't do anything more until Dobelle, or somebody like him, can finally sit down and set up concrete specifications for what the artificial vision device should do." When that day comes, Mladejovsky and his colleagues in Utah's Microcircuit Lab are prepared to build the Utah eyes. "A mere technological problem," Mladejovsky repeats.

Artificial Hearing

The artificial hearing project at Utah is quite similar to the eyesight project. Electrodes have been implanted in the cochlear membranes of the inner ears of four deaf volunteers.

Mladejovsky and other Utah researchers are stimulating the cochlea with electrical signals to create sounds of varying pitch and loudness. As with artificial vision, the ultimate goal is to understand how human hearing works, and then build miniaturized computer circuitry that can be used in a portable hearing device. (The computer used in the artificial hearing experiments, like that used for artificial vision, is presently gigantic—2.7 meters long by 2.7 meters high.)

While artificial hearing may not sound as spectacular as artificial vision, Mladejovsky claims it is a much more difficult venture because deaf subjects have great trouble communicating what they're experiencing. It is difficult to describe subtle variations in pitch and loudness, and most subjects are mute and must communicate by writing or sign language.

The team's biggest break came when they found a willing subject who was deaf in one ear only. Paul, the unilaterally deaf subject, has electrodes implanted in his deaf ear. When his cochlea is stimulated electronically, he tunes an audio oscillator to produce a matching sound on his good ear. This way he can tell the researchers exactly what they're producing with their electrical signals. But Mladejovsky admits that producing artificial hearing is much more difficult than anyone had suspected.

Artificial Hearts

Donald Olsen, a veterinarian in Utah's artificial heart lab, gently kicked a sleepy looking calf named Theodore. It was enough to bring Theodore rapidly to his feet. "See," said Olsen, "this calf is perfectly healthy." Theodore did, in fact, look very healthy. The only thing distinguishing him from a normal calf was an array of air hoses sticking out of his side. The hoses connected Theodore to an external compressed-air pump that powered his artificial heart. Some 85 days earlier, Olsen had removed the calf's real heart and replaced it with a molded polyurethane model called the Jarvik-7. Designed by Robert Jarvik, head of Utah's heart program, Jarvik-7 is similar to Jarvik-5, the plastic heart that holds the world longevity record for artificial hearts. It kept a Holstein calf named Abebe alive in the Utah facilities for over six months; 184 days to be exact. Abebe died in May 1977, not because of a malfunction, but simply because he was a growing young cow and had outgrown the heart. (Calves are used because their cardiac output is similar to man's, they are good animals to operate on and they are far cheaper—at $200 apiece—than gorillas or baboons.)

Theodore's Jarvik-7 brings Utah one step closer to artificial heart implantation in man because, unlike Jarvik-5, it is the exact size needed for a human being. An artificial heart has been implanted in man on only one occasion. That was Dr. Denton Cooley's controversial operation on Haskell Karp in 1969. Karp survived only a span of hours with the implant. Since then, blood pumps have been used as temporary-assist devices to keep cardiac patients alive for short periods of time, but there have been no more total replacements.

Next Steps

This hiatus is partly due to now stricter federal regulations for all medical devices to be used in human beings, as well as obviously due in part to technical problems still to be worked out. Perhaps most important, however, is the recent decision by the National Advisory Heart Council to give left-ventricular-assist devices (LVADs) first priority and to deemphasize total hearts. This has brought a partial drying up of funds for the Utah heart team.

Willem Kolff differs strongly with the Council's philosophy. If the patient is sick enough to need an LVAD, claims Kolff, he really needs a whole new pump. Kolff feels that an assist pump cannot sustain a heart patient whose condition is so bad that all conventional remedies have failed.

The drying-up of funds has temporarily killed one of Donald Olsen's favorite projects, the nuclear heart. Olsen favors hearts with a built-in power source because they offer the patient independence. He also feels there's less chance of infection because you don't have to run electric wires or air hoses into the body. An electric heart will probably be the next step but, Olsen says, the batteries would have to be recharged every three to four hours. A nuclear-powered heart, on the other hand, could run 40 years on a small supply of plutonium 238.

There is one potential problem, however. While plutonium 238, unlike plutonium 239, is not fissionable (you can't make a bomb out of it), it is highly carcinogenic and could be used to poison a city's water supply. The nuclear heart conjures up a horror scenario of terrorists kidnapping several cardiac patients and killing them for their plutonium capsules.

Kolff is not overly enthusiastic about the nuclear heart. He doesn't share Olsen's pessimism over running wires into the human body and calls the electric heart a perfectly sane solution. The power pack would be worn outside the body, with wires leading inside. When asked about the risk of infection, Kolff said, "So what? We're talking about patients with a life expectancy of five minutes." Kolff also made note of Dobelle's success in implanting wires into Craig's head and leaving them for three years with no sign of infection. Another solution would be to induce electric current through the skin. Two coils—one inside the body, one outside—would transmit power from an external battery to the heart's motor.

Blood Vessel Grafts

The heart isn't the only internal organ that can fail in the human body. Blood vessels, nerves, bile ducts, ureters, bladders, and lungs also fall victim to disease and injury. Utah's plan: Repair and replace these damaged tissues with synthetic plastics and rubber. Armed with a $1.4 million federal grant, the university recently set up the nation's first Biomedical Engineering Center for Polymer Implants.

Donald J. Lyman, director of the new center, has already implanted in dogs tiny blood vessel grafts made of a new polyurethane like material. Very large grafts made of Dacron have been used for years to repair major blood vessels such as the human aorta. But Dacron and similar materials are too rigid and fail quickly when used for smaller arteries and veins.

What's needed is a flexible material that has enough give as the blood pulsates through it. That's exactly what Lyman and his staff of 20 have created. The flexible grafts in dogs are only three millimeters in diameter—smaller than needed for humans—and have lasted 18 months. Polymer implants in humans are expected within a year.

Lyman explains that 80 percent of the human body is made of polymers, which are simply very large molecules (Europeans call them macromolecules). DNA, for example, is a polymer. And Lyman's office reminds one of something out of WatSon and Crick and the Search for The Double Helix. The day I visited him, it was cluttered with atomic models that looked like long chains of different-colored plastic baseballs. One 1 2/3-meter-long model had claimed sole possession of the office couch. Lyman said it represented only 1/20th of a polymer he was "designing."

Mapping an Artificial Body

That's basically what the center is doing: "We're mapping implants atom by atom." Lyman and his colleagues are creating brand-new synthetic polymers, which he said could be loosely described as plastics or rubberlike, in order to find the perfect implant materials. Lyman expects his polymers to have mind-boggling characteristics. First, they must survive far longer in the human body than conventional implant materials. Second, they must eventually degenerate. Initially, this seems contradictory.

But Lyman's plan makes infinite sense. Polymer blood.vessels, ureters, bladders, or whatever must last long enough for the patient to survive. However, Lyman believes only a few synthetics can last forever in the body. Human tissue is constantly changing while the implant is not. The trick then is to create materials that will encourage tissue growth on their outside surfaces. In this way, a blood vessel could be implanted, and over a number of years, it would slowly degrade while natural polymers would take its place, eventually replacing it entirely. In other words, you could rebuild a man's insides with Utah implants and in, say, ten years you could cut him open and find nothing synthetic—only normal, natural tissue. The real goal of implantation, then, is regeneration.

Once the right polymers are invented, Lyman foresees building any number of body parts: lungs, an esophagus and trachea, skin, testicles, fallopian tubes, even nerves. "Blood vessels are rather simple," says Lyman. "They're really just pipes. The bladder is a bag. But nerves are more like telephone wires." Even so, Lyman plans to make, implant, and regenerate nerves. Eventually.

Money is the Answer

It seems odd that with all the medical science heavyweights concentrated in the establishment East and on the innovative West Coast that the most sophisticated bioengineering effort in the U.S. is going on in Salt Lake City. At first I suspected a religious motive, considering the overwhelming influence of the Church of Latter-Day Saints on the city. That idea was quickly dispelled.

"Salt Lake is a beautiful city for skiers and backpackers," said one researcher who asked not to be identified. “With all these beautiful mountains, you can put up with almost any number of Mormons." Dr. Kolff gives a more mundane reason for Utah's success: money. The university has set up Kolff in a special position that allows him great freedom in acquiring federal funds. Kolff reports directly to the vice-president in charge of research. The university's bioengineering program is not without its fund-raising problems, however. The school is sometimes out-maneuvered by more powerful and better-connected rivals in the fight for federal money. I mentioned Michael E. DeBakey, perhaps the most famous name in heart research, to Dr. Kolff and obviously hit a sore spot. President Nixon awarded DeBakey's team at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston a real plum several years ago: the opportunity to work with Soviet scientists on a joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. artificial heart project. Kolff claims Baylor only got the job because of DeBakey's tremendous power in Washington. "They sentthe least successful heart group in the country to Moscow," said Kolff. While that may ring of sour grapes, DeBakey's longevity results with artificial hearts are rather meager when compared to those of Utah's heart program.

And there's another funding problem. Kolff says Utah sometimes suffers from the government's peer-review system of awarding grants. "We're so far ahead in our field," says Kolff immodestly, "that it's sometimes hard to find peers."

And that pretty much describes the bioengineering effort at Utah—peerless. The Six Million Dollar Man as portrayed on television will probably never exist. But the $8.4 Million Man is alive and well and living in Salt Lake City.


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