While speaking with David Serlin on the phone in the middle of his stint at New York University, the UC San Diego-based disability historian and gender theorist briefly outlined the history of the concept of disability explaining how the creation of the idea of a body that's perfect or normal, or a body that's imperfect or abnormal, is a recent idea in recent history. The development of prosthetics and bionics over the course of the past century is one guided by the dual pursuits of improving the life of a person who does not fall in that broad “able bodied” categorization and negating that trait which makes the person different and, in the eyes of some, less able.
You can see the tension between these two ideals in the types of bionic apparatus which have been developed. While many of the technological innovations outlined below are truly spectacular, Serlin notes that these life-altering devices tend to have an inordinate cost for the layperson, citing the bustling prosthetics aftermarket on eBay. While marveling at the fact that the Argus II can restore something approximating vision to the blind, remember that its $150,000 price tag prevents such a technology from being as ubiquitous as the wheelchair for a good while.
Check out the rendering below for the latest in bionics and prosthetics. (Best experienced on desktop.)
The ultimate guide
to artificial body parts
Argus II, The MC3 Bio-Lung, Power Knee, Moto Knee, Versa Foot, Otto Bock Bionic Hand, Silicon polymer with gold lining, BiVacor
This ingenious device is used to treat patients with retinal deterioration—most commonly caused by retinitis pigmentosa—which causes the eye to lose its light sensitivity, leading victims deeper into darkness as the disorder progresses.
The MC3 Bio-Lung
While research into lung replacement is inching towards synthesizing actual lung cells—and making them magnetically levitate —the Michigan Critical Care Consultants (MC3) has teamed up with the University of Michigan Medical Center to develop a mechanical, albeit temporary, solution.
The most miraculous of the bunch, the BiVacor artificial heart can replace the human heart outright. The BiVacor, much like the human heart itself, is simply a mechanism to pump blood through the body. As the company advertises on its website, it's “small enough for a child, powerful enough for an adult."
Otto Bock Bionic Hand
The history of hand prostheses moved from cosmetic to functional with the development of the split hook, and the apparatus that would allow wearers to actually grab and lift objects. The technological developments in hand replacement are the most overtly futuristic ones, as science is finally getting to the point where these mechanical devices can be controlled by the brain.
with gold lining
For all the amazing progress that technological replacements for hands has made, there is still one fundamental flaw: they can not feel what they touch. Since so much of a hand's function depends on what it feels—we handle a baseball differently than an orange—it was a big breakthrough when a Cleveland man's prosthetic hand was fitted with artificial skin that allowed him to realize that he was touching a soft cherry, and therefore should not use so much force as to crush it.
While prosthetic legs have been around for a long while, there has been a lot of momentum this century in the realm of fitting athletes with prosthetics and bionics. The most famous case of this is of Olympian and convicted murderer Oscar Pistorius
Explicitly designed without functionality for everyday use as a medical apparatus, this bionic limb is for use while participating in extreme sports...hence the 'extreme' design.
Eye – Argus II
This prosthesis combines a few of the most cutting edge technologies into one. First, the recipient of protheses undergoes a four-hour operation to have a microchip implanted into the retina. After a short healing period, the chip is hooked up to an apparatus that looks like a pair of wrap-around sunglasses, which uses a digital camera to interpret the light information and transmits that digital information, via a wireless network, to a device which converts it into signals which the brain can comprehend. That device then transmits the sensory information back to the retinal microchip, effectively bypassing the eye and communicating directly with neurons connected to the brain. Since the Argus II is only configured to implant about 60 electrodes into the retina, the resolution is quite low (think, 60 pixels) but formerly blind patients can see light contrast and outlines of people and objects. A software update will help users see some color.
Trachea – Synthetic trachea lined with stem cells
Oftentimes, the most ingenious technologies are the most simply constructed—the knife, the condom—and the artificial trachea is no exception. An Eritrean cancer patient was given the first in 2011, when doctors at Sweden's Karolinska Institute used 3D scanning technology in order to mold an exact replica of the man's trachea. They then printed a new trachea out of synthetic materials, lining it with stem cells cultivated from the man's bone marrow so that the body would not reject the prosthetic. The result is a fully function bridge between the upper respiratory system and the lungs, which saved the man's life after chemotherapy and radiation treatment did little to help the his cancer-ravaged windpipe. The development was widely reported on as a success—especially the bit about using stem cells to avoid rejection—but, until just a couple of weeks ago, the doctor who innovated the solution, Paolo Macchiarini faced ethics charges for misrepresenting and over-glorifying his research. An investigatory board at the Karolinska Institute cleared him of the charges, but Macchiarini has nonetheless moved on from tracheas.
Lungs – The MC3 Bio-Lung
While research into lung replacement is inching towards synthesizing actual lung cells—and making them magnetically levitate—the Michigan Critical Care Consultants (MC3) has teamed up with the University of Michigan Medical Center to develop a mechanical, albeit temporary, solution. The Bio-Lung is an apparatus roughly the size of a beer can that replaces carbon dioxide with oxygen in red blood cells flowing through it, an improvement over the current generation of similar technology implemented by many hospitals—the ECMO—which requires the patient to be hooked up to a machine and damages the red blood cells. The Bio-Lung most directly benefits patients with lung trauma, such as from pneumonia or smoke inhalation, but it is by no means a permanent solution. When it comes to the lungs, the technology native to the human body is far superior to the ones developed by science, and both the Bio-Lung and ECMO are only meant to tide patients over until they recent a donor lung.
Feet, leg, knee – Power Knee, Moto Knee, Versa Foot
The most futuristic advances in this realm benefit extreme sports athletes. Take the Orange County-based firm Össur, which produces a variety of bionic knee replacements in the Total Knee line designed for everything from, as Ossür's website states, trips to the store to manual labor to track and field sports. The company also markets a motorized apparatus called the Power Knee for everyday use. Another company, BioDapt, was started by a snowmobile racer, Mike Schulz, who lost his leg in a grizzly racing accident which caused his kidneys to shut down. BioDapt offers the quadricep-replacing Moto Knee, with its quadricep-replacing Moto Knee—designed for activities including off-roading, skateboarding, and motocross.
Hands – Otto Bock Bionic Hand
Earlier this year, three Austrians were outfitted by bionic hands manufactured by Otto Bock. The procedure to install these included attaching nerves from the arms to send messages to the device and grafting muscles from the arms and legs to control it. According to The Guardian, there are some complications, namely the fact that patients will have to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of their lives so the body keeps the prosthetic, as well as the fact that the signals the brain sends to limbs are too complex to be processed by such a machine. But it's progress nonetheless, and a remarkable means of improving human life directly through machines.
Skin – Silicon polymer with gold lining
For all the amazing progress that technological replacements for hands has made, there is still one fundamental flaw: they can not feel what they touch. Since so much of a hand's function depends on what it feels—we handle a baseball differently than an orange—it was a big breakthrough when a Cleveland man's prosthetic hand was fitted with artificial skin that allowed him to realize that he was touching a soft cherry, and therefore should not use so much force as to crush it. This skin, developed in collaboration between South Korean and American scientists, is comprised of a stretchable silicon polymer and gold contacts, designed to both conform to the movement of a bionic hand and send information about objects in that hand to the brain's sensory cortex. According to an article in MIT's Technology Review, this current fabric is the most sensitive science has developed yet, implementing 400 sensors per square millimeter.
Heart – BiVacor
The most miraculous of the bunch, the BiVacor artificial heart can replace the human heart outright. The BiVacor, much like the human heart itself, is simply a mechanism to pump blood through the body, but the technology in it is fairly complex and, ultimately, difficult to squeeze into something that, as the company advertises on its website, is “small enough for a child, powerful enough for an adult.” Hearkening to the advances in the lung technology, the BiVacor uses magnetic levitation to keep blood flow stable and minimize wear on the device. A single rotary pump directs two separate centrifugal impellers in order to properly mimic the flow of blood through both sets of aorta and ventricle. The BiVacor was developed by the Texas Heart Institute and its durability is currently being tested on animals made to walk on a treadmill for a month.
While not technically a moving part that could be aided by bionics, scientists are starting to 3D print bones. In 2012, a jaw printed titanium powder was implanted into an 83-year-old woman in the Netherlands. A few days later, the doctors screwed a dental bridge into the metal jaw. Scientists are also using 3D printing to model bones and devise the best method for fixing a fracture. The idea is simple: avoiding an invasive procedure, doctors would be able to use a 3D scanner to make a detailed model of a broken bone so that the most effective method of healing could be devised without meddling with the patient's insides.