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October 17, 2003

Bionic man no longer fiction

From: The Scotsman, UK - Oct 17, 2003


COLONEL Steve Austin was born in the Sixties, part man, part machine, and, to a generation of television viewers, worth every cent of the six million dollars invested in the futuristic vision.

In the Seventies, television had the technology to rebuild Austin from Martin Caidin’s thriller, Cyborg, but for 30 years the superhuman pilot remained a dream. Until now.

Shrinking silicon, wireless technology and a quantum leap in the knowledge of men like Professor Chris Toumazou have translated fiction to fact.

From the brain down, humans can be rebuilt and, according to Prof Toumazou, we can make the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame walk.

"Yes, we now have the technology," said the scientist, who was in Edinburgh last night to deliver the 2003 Royal Society Clifford Paterson Lecture at Heriot-Watt University on the reality of the bionic (wo)man.

He said: "The future is here. We just haven’t distributed it."

Prof Toumazou, of Imperial College, London, is a world authority in cybernetic engineering, combining biology with technology with electronics and implants, which have given scientists and surgeons the unprecedented ability to manipulate nature.

Prof Toumazou added: "The breakthrough was the ability to shrink silicon and the ‘chip’ to phenomenally small sizes.

"Natural physics, silicon devices and the ‘chip’ can mimic biological functions using ultra low power, a fraction of that needed to power a light bulb.

"In the brain, neural ‘bridges’ can be built with remote, wireless-operated implants that control the nerve impulses.

"Modern limb replacement prosthetics are stimulated by neurons to mimic normal functions.

"Technology exists to affect the left ventricle of the heart with a device generated by only 25 watts of power that pumps seven litres of blood each minute, a genuine bionic heart.

"Photo-receptors can be implanted in the eye and from what we now know about vision systems we are able to create the facility, for example, of telescopic sight.

"Like the Six Million Dollar Man, the ideas have been about for a while, but we are now able to implement them, to make unhealthy people healthy. Everything I do is clinically driven.

"In my case, this is not about making, for example, a super military."

He concedes, however, that projects exist for that end, the creation of the ultimate warrior; stronger, faster and more capable than the enemy.

Prof Toumazou added: "We could make super-humans, but the question is why would we want to? This is about enhancing quality of life for those in need of it.

"We have reached a stage where neurons are being grown on silicon so that, effectively, one could grow an eye.

"Another aspect of progress is the miniaturisation of power supplies that have replaced the ‘battery pack’ with something infinitely smaller that is wireless or conducted through radio waves."

Prof Toumazou has written or co-authored 300 publications in his field and was the youngest professor to be appointed at Imperial, at the age of 33. His latest project is an analogue cochlear prosthesis, which is presently in clinical trials.

Micro-electronics behind bionic ears will alleviate hearing loss even in the profoundly deaf.

He said: "I finally feel we are near to giving people with deafness the chance to hear while having unlimited freedom with a fully implantable device."

"Analogue electronics have been used to copy nature with a reproduction of the basilar membrane in the ear.

"We are using physics to match biology. Ionic currents in nervous tissue behave in the same way as electrical currents in the chip’s transistor.

"Instead of 2,400 natural hair cells or channels, we have eight filters or channels to which the brain adapts.The outputs are connected to electrodes that then connect nervous tissue to the brain.

"In a nutshell, we rely on the conducting of natural fluid in the ear to connect electrodes to the nerve."

Speech-processing software is also being developed.

He added: "It is a very exciting time as we progress into the 21st century where a bionic man - a cyborg - is a practical reality."