Robots Make 6 Million Dollar Man & Bionic Woman a Reality

This week’s article is the second installment of a survey of recent advances in the world of robotic laboratories. You can read the first installment here.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spinoff Boston Dynamics has developed a series of four-legged creatures as part of a DARPA military contract.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spinoff Boston Dynamics has developed a series of four-legged creatures as part of a DARPA military contract.


We can’t help but draw comparison between some of the recent robotic advances and the 1972 science-fiction secret agent novel Cyborg, by Martin Caidin, which was adapted into the popular television series The Six Million Dollar Man and its spin-off series, The Bionic Woman. A lot has changed since this novel and the television series became popular in the early 1970s. For one thing, six million dollars today sounds more like the price of a high-end trophy home and less like the budget for a spy agency’s bionic robotics program. Perhaps today the show would be renamed The Six Trillion Dollar Man. Nonetheless, one by one the fictional bionic implants worn by the Steve Austin’s character are becoming real, practical robotic devices.


The 6 Million Dollar Man & The Bionic Woman Main Menu Title, image by Pink Pigeon
The 6 Million Dollar Man & The Bionic Woman Main Menu Title, image by Pink Pigeon


Let’s Start with the Bionic Arm

After eight years of research and testing, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a new bionic prosthetic arm. It’s completely controlled by signals from the brain, just like in The Six Million Dollar Man. The inventor is none other than Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway. Officially, it’s known as the DEKA arm, but Kamen nicknamed it “Luke” after Luke Skywalker from Star Wars (who lost his arm fighting Darth Vader). You can’t make this stuff up.


The DARPA-funded DEKA prosthetic arm project is literally controlled by the wearer’s mind. It can accomplish complex tasks that require manual dexterity (such as extracting a letter from an envelope) or tasks that require agile, sensitive touch (such as handling eggs in an egg-crate).


Then of Course There’s the Bionic Eye

Last year the US FDA approved the first artificial retinal prosthesis system implant, colloquially known as a ‘bionic eye’. These replacement retinas, which go by the brand name Argus II, were invented by Second Sight Medical Products, based in Sylmar, California (just north of LA in the San Fernando Valley). After forty successful retina implant surgeries performed in European hospitals, the FDA approved the Argus II eye implant for American patients this past January. The first two American implants were performed at the University of Michigan Kellog Eye Center earlier this year.


How Does an Argus II Artificial Retina Work?

The patient wears a small computer (called the Video Processing Unit or VPU) which captures video signals from a camera mounted on glasses worn by the patient. The VPU transmits a wireless signal stream to an antenna mounted inside the artificial retinal implant. In response, the implant device emits small pulses of electricity which stimulate the retina’s remaining live biological cells. These cells transmit the information in the normal manner along the optic nerve to the brain. Patients learn how to interpret the signals sent to their brain via the Argus II in order to perceive patterns of light and dark picked up by the camera.



Finally, You May Recall that The Six Million Dollar Man Could Run Fast, Really Fast.

Unlike The Six Million Dollar Man, we don’t yet have an example of bionic legs implanted in a human that can run as fast as a car. But Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spinoff Boston Dynamics has developed a series of four-legged creatures as part of a DARPA military contract. Boston Dynamics’ Cheetah robot broke a robotics world speed record by running over 28 mph — on a treadmill with an external power source. But Boston Dynamics’ next-generation running, galloping and bounding robot, called Wildcat, is even more impressive. It can run about 16 mph — not quite as fast as the Cheetah — but completely under its own power, untethered and out in the open.


Think that’s cool? The search giant Google sure did. It acquired Boston Dynamics last December, one of eight robotics companies Google acquired in 2013. Google has not yet announced its strategy behind these robot technology acquisitions.


We Have Conflicted Views of Advances in Robot Technology

As we discussed in our previous article, there are mixed reactions to robotics technology. Nearly everyone applauds the development of a useful bionic arm for an amputee, or an artificial retina for those that are losing their sight. Reactions for robotics projects like the Boston Dynamics; Cheetah and Wildcat are more nuanced however. In the case of the robot Cheetah and Wildcat, maybe it’s because it’s too easy to imagine being chased down by one of these mechanical beasts, a development that brings us one step closer to a science fiction ‘robocalypse‘ nightmare.


Mixed Reaction to Google Glass Introduction

Interestingly there’s been a mixed reaction by many observers to another technological achievement: Google Glass. Despite a clever campaign targeting ‘thought leaders’, the introduction of Google Glass in the marketplace has been met with reactions ranging excitement, to a lukewarm ‘meh’ to actively hostile attacks. Not cool says the Twitter-sphere. But why is that? On paper, the Google Glass system seems fantastic: a small video screen and camera mounted in eyeglasses.

Thanks to a constant wireless connection to the Internet, Google Glass can catalog and interpret the world around us, a la The Six Million Dollar Man. (Actually, this invention is not entirely new, the famed inventor of the Dyson cyclonic vacuum cleaner, James Dyson, apparently designed a prototype system very similar to Google Glass nearly 10 years earlier — but chose not to bring it to market.)

The negative reactions to Google Glass don’t seem to stem from its ability to augment our visual senses with relevant information as much as our increasingly distrustful reaction to pervasive attacks on our personal privacy — thanks to over sharing on social media (one of the Seven Digital Deadly Sins), ‘Big Data’ harvesting and analysis of our personal information, or worse, active spying on our private communications. In other words, Google Glass is literally ‘in your face’! People have described it as a lot like ‘Big Brother’ watching over you. Once again science fiction becomes reality, in this case it’s George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, first published in 1949.


Computerized Robot Gun Can Shoot Targets Over One Kilometer Away

There are other brand new developments in robotics technology which can also, pardon the pun, trigger a feeling of unease. Here in Austin, Texas, a local firearm weapons manufacturing start-up called TrackingPoint announced they’ve sold out of their entire initial production run of a $10,000 hunting rifle, called the XS1. What makes this specialized rifle different from ordinary firearms is its built-in fighter jet-style ‘lock-and-launch’ laser range-finder. The range-finder is fully computerized and equipped with built-in gyroscopes and accelerometers to automatically stabilize and aim the weapon for you. The result is a firearm that enables an average shooter to pinpoint far away targets with sniper-like precision. The user just ‘tags’ the target and the robot gun takes over from there.


In this example video you can see the TrackingPoint XS1 rifle make a clean shot on a small handheld phone target from over 1100 yards (one kilometer) away.


Look for part three of this series on robotics, where we conclude with a look at robots working side-by-side with humans in the workplace.

Given some of these unsettling developments in robots, industrialists who want to introduce ‘friendly’ robots into the workplace have their work cut out for them. Car manufacturers like BMW are trying hard to change these preconceived notions about robots as they introduce more and more robots on the shop floor. We’ll take a look at these issues (plus breaking news that a robot has passed the Turing Test) in the third installment in our series on robots. In the meantime this week we’re at the NeoCon Show in Chicago checking out North America’s largest design exposition and conference for commercial interiors.

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