Computer Science Department Website Case Study

Robotics: How Close Are We to Creating a Bionic Man?

While the creation of a ‘bionic man’ similar to the Six Million Dollar Man of the 70s television series or the gun-slinging robot of Westworld may still be the realm of popular sci-fi, technology has developed to a stage where we are closer to such a possibility than ever before. Some of these technologies include robotics, the development of organic polymers that could be used as artificial muscles, nano-technology, and artificial intelligence (AI). In this paper we will review the latest developments in the relevant technologies to find how close we are to developing a ‘bionic man.’

Apart from the availability of the required technology, one of the factors that would eventually determine if (or how soon) we are able to develop a bionic man is — the urgency or need for such a development. This is because technology does not develop in a vacuum. For example, the industry that has made most use of robotics is the car manufacturing industry. The reason is that the car assembly line has a requirement for such repetitive and precision-oriented tasks where robots can perform a better and more cost-effective job than a human being. Another industry that employs robots extensively is the electronic assembly line where extreme precision is required for mounting microchips on circuit boards. (Bekey, para on Uses for Robot). Hence, it can be predicted with some confidence that future developments in robotics will be made in the fields where there is a definite requirement for such development.

One such field where robots can prove extremely useful is the military. Ideally, future battles would be fought by cyborg troops instead of real-life soldiers. Indeed at the U.S. government’s premier center for the development of advanced military technology, scientists foresee a “robotics revolution by the year 2020.” (“Battle Without Troops.” p. 38) Until now, most military robots have been of the airborne variety such as the unmanned ‘drone’ aircrafts used extensively for reconnaissance in the war in Afghanistan. On the ground, robots have been used for dangerous jobs such as minesweeping. For the future, military planners are interested in the development of more mobile robot designs. Research focusing on such design is being conducted in several labs in the U.S. that study biomimetics — a science in which actual biological systems are studied for inspiration. (Ibid. p.40). Since the military has the financial resources needed for such cutting edge research, it is likely to play a major role in the future development of robotics and perhaps even in the development of a bionic soldier.

Another area in which there is a requirement of robotic technology is the field of artificial limbs and revolutionary surgical techniques for correcting injuries — especially sports related injuries. Recent developments in computer technology and plastic polymers that resemble the structure of human skin have made possible the development of vastly improved limbs that almost work as well as the original. An example is the C-leg (Computer leg) developed by a German company has sold more than 3,000 such legs worldwide for above the knee amputees. (Barnes, Bionic Limbs). A computer chip in the leg controls a special motor for a hydraulic motor that enables the user to engage in activities like golf almost as a non-disabled person. Recent developments in the field of plastics has made possible the manufacture of a new kind of organic polymer that can twitch by command from an electric signal and serve as artificial muscle. (Radford, A Giant Stride Closer). Researchers are also working on the development of artificial blood that could carry oxygen from the lungs and implants that could stimulate hearing directly in the brain. (Ibid.) This is in addition to the development of knee-joints that could be fitted in children who would grow with them.

The human mind can be augmented with machine intelligence. This is not fiction but already a scientific fact according to a British cybernetics professor, Kevin Warwick who got himself fitted with a computer chip in March of this year to connect himself to a computer and spent four months as a cyborg prototype to conduct a range of experiments. (Underhill, The Bionic Man). By linking himself to computers through wires and radio transmitters he proved that it was possible to pass signals back and forth between a man’s nervous system and various electromechanical devices. If Warrick is even half right, it may become possible in the near future for amputees to use brain signals to move their limbs, or brain implants may enable people to communicate with each other without the use of speech. Warrick in his book, “I, Cyborg” predicts that in about 50 years, the world would be dominated by a master race of cyborgs, their brains linked to a global network of with access to super-intelligence. (Ibid.) Many people are not convinced with Warrick’s theories, but considering the accelerating pace of growth in new technologies over the past few decades, it may not be long before they become a reality.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is another field of science that could contribute in developing a robot with abilities closely approximating humans. AI is defined as the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs. ‘Intelligence’ itself is hard to define but usually refers to the computational part of the ability to achieve goals in the world and is present in varying degrees in humans, animals and some machines. (McCarthy, “What is AI?” Basic Questions). Some of the present day applications of AI include chess playing machines or programs. There is a limited amount of intelligence in these machines but they are only able to beat chess masters by the use of ‘brute force computation.’ For example to beat a world champion chess player, a computer needs to look at 200 million positions per second. (Ibid. Applications of AI). Other applications include ‘speech recognition’ computer programs, computer vision, and ‘expert systems’ (in which the combined knowledge of experts in a particular field is embodied in a program designed to carry out certain tasks).

The practical limitation of the increase in speed of computers is considered to be a major barrier in the development of AI. This problem could be overcome by the future development in another promising ‘new’ technology known as nanotechnology, which is evolving from breakthroughs in science and precision engineering at the molecular level. The technology deals with re-arranging of atoms to create new molecular structures and may lead to atom-by-atom manufacturing and surgery on the cellular scale. (“Nanotechnology” Encarta). In a not too distant future “biotech” and “nanotech” could merge making possible the development of biocomputers with the help of nanotech manufacturing techniques. These computers, having the computing power of thousands of times today’s computers, may well make the development of AI that parallels that of humans. Other possible applications of nanotech include the development of “nanorobots” which would be able to repair human tissue and remove obstructions in the human circulatory systems. (Ibid.).

Due to the unprecedented development in several technologies discussed above, it is now possible to envision the development of a ‘bionic man’ in the near future, although it is still not possible to put a definite time-frame as to when it could happen. Some people question the feasibility and even the ethics of such an endeavor. Such barriers, however, rarely deter science and technology. If man did not hold back in developing something so lethal and destructive as an atom bomb, surely he will not do so in attempting to replicate himself artificially.

Works Cited

Barnes, Peter. “Bionic Limbs for Amputees.” September 23, 2002. Tech TV Website. October 1, 2002.,24195,3400267,00.html

Battles without Troops.” Article in Newsweek International: Special Issue. December 2001-February 2002. pp. 38-40

Bekey, George A. “Robot.” Article in Encyclopedia Encarta, 2002.

McCarthy, John. “What Is Artificial Intelligence?” Stanford University: Computer Science Department Website. July 20, 2002. October 1, 2002.

Nanotechnology.” Article in Encyclopedia Encarta, 2002.

Radford, Tim. “Bionic man comes a giant stride closer.” The Guardian. September 19, 2002. The Guardian Unlimited Website. October 1, 2002.,3604,794516,00.html

Underhill, William. “The Bionic Man.” Newsweek International. October 7, 2002. MSNBC Website.. October 1, 2002.


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