Meet Rex: the $1m bionic man with working heart, set of lungs and human face

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Most human body parts can be replaced,  say scientists, and here’s the evidence

When Luke Skywalker received a perfect bionic replacement for the hand that was cut off in Star Wars Episode V, the idea of replicating human organs and body parts seemed far-fetched.

Thirty years later, the idea is no longer just science fiction. Scientists, among them the creators of “Rex” – the world’s most complete bionic man, unveiled in London this week – believe they can now replicate about two-thirds of the human body.

“We were surprised how many of the parts of the body can be replaced,” said Rich Walker, managing director of the robotics team Shadow, who built Rex. “There are some vital organs missing, like the stomach, but 60 to 70 per cent of a human has effectively been rebuilt.” This is heralded, then, as the dawn of the age of bionic man – although specialists caution that we are still feeling our way.

Social psychologist Bertolt Meyer, who also worked on Rex, has an interesting perspective: he was born without his left hand and has a prosthesis. “I have looked for new bionic technologies out of personal interest for a long time and I think that until five or six years ago nothing much was happening,” he said. “Suddenly we are at a point where we can build a body that is great and beautiful in its own special way.”

Not everyone in the field believes the recent progress, impressive as it is, places us on the road to complete replication of human limbs, organs and tissue. “We have motors which can lift things but, if you want to mimic the dexterity of a hand, we are not there yet,” said Professor Steven Hsiao of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“What we are beginning to achieve is building prostheses which look like human body parts, but we are a long way away from making ones which relay sensory information the way the human body does.”

Professor Hsiao drew the comparison between Star Wars and real life, saying: “The goal is the scene in the film where Luke Skywalker gets his new hand tested and is able to feel pain: we are not there. In 10 years, we will be able to build a robot which has the dexterity to pick up a pen and write with it, but it will not be able to send back sensory information.”

Rex, billed as the pinnacle of robotics achievement to date, will meet his public from tomorrow at the Science Museum in London. Dubbed the Million-Dollar Man (that’s how much he cost to make), he consists of a prosthetic face, hips, knees, feet and hands, all of which are commercially available. Other off-the-shelf items include an artificial retina, cochlea and heart.

Rex’s other internal organs, among them a pancreas, a set of artificial lungs and bladder, are still in development. Some of the technology cannot work without human input; bionic hands, for example, need muscles and signals from the brain to function. Other parts, such as the heart and pancreas, are designed to work on their own.

Other body parts remain out of the reach of scientists. Mr Walker says: “The only artificial stomach we have seen is very large and generates electricity, so you couldn’t use it to replace a human stomach, but I am sure there are people in the regenerative medicine community working on that.”

And replication of the human brain, the most complex structure known to man, was not even on the radar, Mr Walker said. “This is a showcase for prosthetic parts, it shows exactly where we’ve got to in being able to replace parts of a human.”

Bertolt Meyer adds: “I’d say it’s highly unlikely that, in our lifetimes or in that of our grandchildren, we will see a fully articulate human body with an artificial intelligence.”

Mr Meyer said there would be ethical issues surrounding prostheses if they began to outperform human body parts. “Should I be allowed to cut off my real hand and replace it with something, does that gives me an unfair advantage over people who cannot afford this? I’m not saying that is going to happen but these are questions that should be on the table before that technology becomes available.”

Click below to listen to The Independent's Kevin Rawlinson interviewing Rich Walker, the Managing Director of Shadow Robot, on the implications of the world's most complete bionic man.

 

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick