The '$6bn Man' helps blind to see and lame to walk

Scientists have unveiled their vision for a bionic man, where biology is merged with electronics to make limbs, organs and senses "better, stronger, faster".

The vision includes developments such as a robotic arm that can play the piano, a bionic eye with video camera and microchip implant, and a powerful "external skeleton" that confers superhuman strength. The American Association of Anatomists has named the project "the $6bn human" after the 1970s television series Six Million Dollar Man in which scientists rebuilt a wounded test pilot into a bionic man. Details of the latest research were released at the Experimental Biology 2006 conference which opened yesterday in San Francisco.

"Bionics, a word that merges biology with electronics, means replacing or enhancing anatomical structures or physiological processes with electronic or mechanical components," said a spokeswoman for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "Unlike prostheses, the bionic implant actually mimics the original function, sometimes surpassing the power of the original organ or other body part."

Professor William Craelius of Rutgers University in New Jersey described how he built a bionic arm with a hand and five fingers, each of which can be independently controlled by commands sent from the brain to nerves that communicate with a computer embedded in the artificial limb. "The biggest challenge for a bionic arm is to communicate effectively with its users. My laboratory has developed new communication tools that allow prospective users of a bionic arm to regain proportional control over several movements of the hand, thus restoring a degree of dexterity," Dr Craelius told the conference.

The bionic arm is slid over a silicone sleeve attached to an amputee's limb below the elbow. After a brief training period people gain control of the bionic arm by just thinking about the required finger movements.

"Amputees with minimal training have gained sufficient finger control to use keyboards," he said.

Daniel Palanker of Stanford University in California led a team that designed a bionic eye with a tiny light-sensitive chip implanted in the retina to detect images. The chip receives signals from a video camera mounted on a pair of goggles which can even see in infra-red, making night vision a possibility. Dr Palanker said the ultimate aim was to produce a bionic eye that allows blind people to distinguish faces and read large print.

Homayoon Kazerooni of the University of California in Berkeley has designed a pair of powerful robotic legs that a person can "wear" to carry heavy loads. The wearer or "pilot" benefits from the extra mechanical power. "We set out to create an exoskeleton that combines a human control system with robotic muscle," Dr Kazerooni said.

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