In medieval Jewish folklore it was an artificial creature called the golem, in 19th-century England it was Frankenstein’s monster and in 1970s America it was a bionic man. Throughout the ages, we have been fascinated by the fictional portrayal of living creatures created or enhanced by synthetic or inanimate materials.
Humans have been enhancing their own limbs and natural abilities with guile and technology since the invention of the wheel. What better way to move faster and further than to ride a bicycle, a beautifully simple way of augmenting leg muscles?
But it is only in the past few decades that we have been able to replace hands, arms and legs with prosthetic devices that match or even exceed the real thing in terms of performance, although we still have some way to go before achieving aesthetic perfection.
Of course no one in their right mind would volunteer to “replace” a healthy limb. These bionic extensions of the body are designed for people who have suffered the misfortune of losing an important part of their anatomy, even if they subsequently feel that their artificial extensions are actually better than the ones they lost.
Few amputees would turn down an offer of a replacement part, provided it worked as well as the real one. Unfortunately, the technology for this kind of perfect substitution is some way off – an artificial leg may be stronger, but it is still not as versatile and as sensory as a real one.
Other body parts may also lend themselves to substitution, or at least functional substitution. The heart pumps blood around the lungs and then around the body, but trying to achieve even this relatively simple function with the reliability and versatility of a real organ has proved to be a challenge.
In any case, bionic organs are probably not the direction of future medicine. It would be better for instance to mend a broken heart in situ with dedicated stem cells rather than relying on an artificial heart transplant.
Nevertheless, once scientists are able to understand and design the “interface” that can link the carbon-based world of life to the silicon-based realm of computers, a revolution in augmented intelligence and brain power might be possible. Imagine a silicon chip implant that gives you instant access to the knowledge of the British Library. A bionic brain would be even better than a bicycle.