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April 16, 2006

Six Million Dollar Man fantasy is nearing reality

From:, New Zealand - Apr 16, 2006

Sydney Morning Herald

He was a figure of fantasy for children growing up in the 1970s - a "six million dollar man" rebuilt with a mechanical arm, legs and eye after he was crippled in an accident.

Now a series of scientific breakthroughs is making a bionic man a distinct reality.

An international conference has heard that work on replacement eyes is well-advanced, with electronic legs and bionic arms also being tested.

Australian experts said that while they did not possess the superhuman powers of the fictional bionic man, people were now benefiting from bionics.

"It's already happening," said Gordon Wyeth, president of the Australian Robotics and Automation Association. "If you look at the retina research being done in Australia and internationally, there are people who have lost their sight who can now see dark and light."

Attendees at a seminar this month at the Experimental Biology 2006 meeting in San Francisco heard that an updated figure for the cost of building a human such as television's Steve Austin might be more like $US6 billion.

Work is being conducted on several continents. European scientists are developing a "cyberhand" they hope will one day replace lost limbs for amputees. The limb would have a sense of touch, achieved by tapping into nerve connections.

The Dextra hand, developed by an American university, has already been used to play piano pieces and type, though it lacks a sense of touch.

And at least two major research projects are looking at the concept of restoring mobility to humans who have lost the ability to walk.

The American Yobotics laboratory has developed a powered orthotic brace that it hopes will give mobility to people who suffer from post-polio syndrome, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy, as well as people whose limbs have deteriorated through age.

Tiny motors drive the legs, giving wearers the strength to climb stairs and walk.

Strap-on robotic legs developed in Japan are also showing promise.

Taking the form of an exoskeleton, the legs will restore mobility to the infirm and give superhuman strength to the able-bodied, it is hoped.

And several bionic eyes are in development around the world, with an American team succeeding in stimulating the optic nerve of blind human test subjects, allowing them to crudely detect light.

At the University of NSW, Professor Nigel Lovell in the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering hopes to conduct human trials on an Australian version of the bionic eye as early as next year. It's hoped the device will be more sophisticated than overseas models.

Australia developed the first bionic ear, the Cochlear implant, and the technology is now being improved here and abroad.

In another technological advance, Professor Ashley Craig, a neuroscientist from the University of Technology, has developed a "mind switch", which allows computers to be operated by brainwaves.

At the current rate of development, bionics that blend with human flesh as seamlessly as those on the fictional bionic man could be a reality in 30 years, Dr Wyeth said.

© Fairfax New Zealand Limited 2006.