A: Robotics, the science of designing and operating robots, is well documented. What is perhaps less well known is the effect this has had on people. Today, the science of prosthetics – part medicine and part engineering – has made the fitting of elaborately functioning prosthetic limbs and joints commonplace. Orthopaedic surgeons routinely replace malfunctioning hips and knees when those joints wear out or succumb to disease. Surgery to fit artificial shoulders, slowly developed during the past 30 years, is no longer rare. What is new are the advances made in bionic prostheses – new limbs which can be attached to a patient’s existing nerves and that work as hands, arms, legs or feet, no longer simply plastic replacements but functioning, useful appendages.
B: For Campbell Baird, a Scottish hotelier, the news that he would have to have his arm amputated was devastating. He could no longer keep his job and drastic changes had to be made in how he lived. Given the accelerating rate of cancer that would have taken more than just his arm, Mr Baird had little option. Now, however, he has been offered a chance to recover some of his old abilities as a solution has arrived in the form of a robotic prosthesis – a new arm powered by complex electronics which permit the wearer to control movement through micro switches and pressure points. The new limb allows Mr Baird to carry out functions that for 16 years he had found impossible.
C: Although admitting that the bionic arm was no match for the real thing, Dr David Gow, who has led the research project for 10 years, commented that bionic limbs are superior to more traditional limb replacements as they restore a biological function controlled by electronics rather than nerves. Bionic limbs require considerable electrical power to operate and it is only the development of advanced new motors in recent years that has allowed the researchers to make the step forward. With four basic functions, the limb Mr Baird was fitted with has been given an additional degree of realism by covering it with a thin, flexible covering the colour of skin. There are even wrinkles and fingerprints. At a cost of $32 000 it will take some time before such prostheses are available to the general public.
D: Certainly an amazing story, but not perhaps as amazing as that of Denise Monroe, an 11-year-old American girl born without shoulders or arms. Before her operation, she used her feet to do everything, including, writing, eating, and even brushing her teeth. Revolutionary new technology allowed scientists to recreate shoulder sockets to which the bionic arms can be attached. The only problem that really remains is financial. For Denise, the $210 000 needed for her operation was raised by charity but there are many more people on the waiting list.
E: Slightly less expensive is progress currently being made with regard to artificial internal organs. Although many versions are in early experimental stages, it is advancing fast, and some are already in general circulation. At least three new implanted heart devices are now undergoing clinical trials, and the eyes, the liver and other organs are all being researched.
F: Bionic ears, or cochlear implants, have a long history, too. The first primitive versions were implanted in 1957 and thousands of hearing-impaired people are now using far more sophisticated versions. One of many such devices, the Clarion, has an external sound processor which converts incoming sounds to digital code, then transmits the code in sound waves to the ‘bionic ear’, sited beneath the skin at the side of the head. From there a thin internal electrode winds through the cochlea past the damaged hair cells, and sends the coded signals directly to the acoustic nerve at a million impulses a second