From bionic arms and legs to artificial organs, science is beginning to catch up with science fiction in the race to replace body parts with man-made alternatives. Now a Channel 4 science documentary, airing on Thursday 7 February at 21.00, is bringing together a team of roboticists to create a complete 'bionic man' for the first time.
'How to Build a Bionic Man' uses nearly $1 million worth of state-of-the-art limbs and organs – the products of billions of dollars of research – borrowed from some of the world's leading laboratories and manufacturers. The resulting 'bionic man', built by UK roboticists Richard Walker and Matthew Godden of Shadow Robot with the support of the Wellcome Trust, will be displayed at London's Science Museum from 7 February until 11 March.
The documentary follows Bertolt Meyer, who has a bionic hand himself, as he meets scientists working at the cutting edge of research to find out just how far this new technology can go.
In the two centuries since Mary Shelley's Dr Frankenstein brought his monster to life, the subject has been a fascinating part of science fiction in books, comics, film and TV. But from Star Wars' Darth Vader to Robocop and from Doctor Who's Cybermen to Blade Runner's replicants, most stories focus on the potentially dire consequences of scientists 'playing God'.
Now, research on advanced prosthetic arms and legs, as well as artificial eyes, hearts and lungs – and even hybrids between computer chips and living brains – means that scientists are finally able to replace body parts and even improve on human abilities.
"I've looked around for new bionic technologies, out of personal interest, for a very long time, and I think that until five or six years ago nothing much was happening. And then suddenly now we get this explosion of innovation," says Bertolt, a social psychologist from Switzerland, who was born without a left hand. "I think we are now at a point where we can build a body that is great and beautiful in its own special way."
Bertolt has had prosthetic hands since he was a child. His new £30,000 bionic hand, which can grasp and twist, is the most advanced on the market. But technology is moving so fast that Bertolt's bionic hand could soon be obsolete.
In the documentary, he explores the very latest in bionic limbs and human enhancements. These include prosthetic limbs, being developed in the USA, that learn to recognise electrical pulses; microchip retinal implants, being developed in Oxford, to give sight to blind patients; and some of the world's most advanced artificial organs, which could one day could solve the worldwide shortage of donor organs.
David Glover, Senior Commissioning Editor for Channel 4 Factual, said: "Following Bertolt Meyer, who has a bionic arm himself, as he investigates the reality of building a bionic human takes this brilliantly made documentary into new territory. If what scientists can do now is jaw-dropping, the future is mind-boggling."
The Science Museum will be showcasing the bionic body in a new displayentitled 'How much of you can be rebuilt?', which will explore our perceptions of human identity in the face of an increasingly bionic future. From 19 to 21 February, visitors will have a unique opportunity to see an interactive demonstration of the bionic man and meet various experts involved in the Channel 4 documentary.
The project is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award, which aims to enable the public to explore biomedical science.
Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, said: "Throughout history, people have always sought to enhance themselves to overcome disabilities or to become bigger, better, stronger and faster. Science is making aspirations and even fantasy ever more possible. We only have to look back at last summer's Paralympics to see how transforming technology has become.
"While exploring the latest medical developments, 'How to Build a Bionic Man' hints at the implications these advances may raise for mankind in the future; it is a fascinating example of scientific programming that will appeal to the imagination of many."