Smithsonian Channel Documentary THE INCREDIBLE BIONIC MAN

Bionic ManIn the field of artificial limbs and organs, would it be possible to create a human being entirely from scratch using this technology? That is the question the Smithsonian Channel intends to answer with their new documentary THE INCREDIBLE BIONIC MAN premiering SUNDAY OCTOBER 20 at 9PM ET/OT

Roboticists Richard Walker and Mathew Godden intend to use the the most advanced prosthetic technology available, combining each of these prostheses into a single, functioning body; something that’s never been attempted before. This collection of robotic limbs won’t be the only thing making up the experiment. The body will also be given a pumping heart and critical organs as well as a functioning circulatory system. This attempt at creating “the world’s first cyber-Frankenstein” is meant to illustrate how close technology is to making a human body.

LimbWhile the Godden and Walker put their creation together, we follow Swiss psychologist, Bertolt Meyer (who himself has a bionic hand) as he attempts to give these scientists a different perspective on what it means to live with a functioning robotic limb. Meyer also expresses interest in finding out how many of his body’s limbs could be replaced with modern technology. Given Meyer’s experiences and questions, he serves as the model on which the “cyber-Frankenstein” will be built.

Meyer’s journey begins as he visits Walker and Godden to observe how their creation can see, mapping out different objects in order to pick up a soda can, and pour it into a glass. This portion of the experiment lays the groundwork for the body to act out a functioning task. We are also introduced to Professor Alexander Seifalian who, a month after the project has begun, is working on creating a functioning heart, organs and circulatory system from the top of the line items available today. We see the development of a heart, substitute lungs as well as a system for filtering oxygen to the bloodstream.

Even with the exciting advancements on display in THE INCREDIBLE BIONIC MAN, the documentary tackles the ethical questions that come from extending human life through artificial means. Bioethics & Human Rights Professor George Annas is interviewed regarding this topic. He says that “in the last 150 years, life expectancy has increased seven hours a day, every day.” This fascinating information is then paired with Annas’ conflicting opinion, “Is that good? It’s horrific to say no to that question, but the answer to that’s ‘no’ it’s not good. There’s a limit.” It’s this part of the documentary that gives an ethical gimbal upon which to turn our thoughts. With soldiers coming home in need to prosthetic limbs, shouldn’t we do our best to accommodate? Isn’t science meant to make our lives better?

A top of the line artificial heart costs $120,000.00

Professor Annas continues to say, “Certainly, at anything like today’s costs, there’s no society on earth, including the United States, that could afford to implant 100,000 artificial hearts a year in people. Is it acceptable that just the rich people get artificial hearts, and therefore they live longer? I don’t think so. But is it also acceptable therefore, to stop development of an artificial heart until we can figure out how to make it an equal society, where everybody gets one? I don’t think that’s possible either.” It is this statement, these ideologies regarding biotechnological advancement that makes the field of study so complicated. “Can we?” “Should we?”, these overarching questions uncover complicated variables not just regarding the price of research, but also the socioeconomic climates in which we live.

Bettholt MeyerAfter the organs are added to the “cyber-Frankenstein’s” shell, the team them begins to work on the walking portion of the experiment. Citing the fact that ankles do 80 percent of the work in walking, and the fact that the experiment is using the most advanced bionic ankles in existence, leads Meyer to one of the leading bionic inventors, Professor Hugh Herr. Herr’s company iWALK, defines bionic as “using electromechanics to, at least, emulate biological function.” The moment when Herr reveals to Meyer the fact that he has two bionic legs himself, a fact that is not betrayed by his walk-step, is shocking. Herr shows Meyer how far his company has come in developing comfortable, realistic and responsive bionics. This part of the documentary shows not just the healing and rehabilitating aspect of bionics, but leads Meyer and us into discussion on transcendence through technology.

“With humans becoming more like cyborgs, and robots becoming more like humans, will we one day create a different form of life?”

Examples of military robots as well as the addition of a “walking exoskeleton” to the “cyber-Frankenstein” show us that we can, in fact, engineer creations to move and walk, even adjust to different terrain, but the real test is that of human-like communication. We’re reminded of Deep Blue, Watson, and Chat-Bot as examples of artificial intelligence that seem to reflect human understanding. However, in a poignant yet funny scene where Bertolt Meyer sits down to chat with the “cyber-Frankenstein’s” A.I., we learn quickly how far artificial intelligence will have to go to in order to compete with the wonders of our human brain.

BrainMeyer takes a trip to USC where scientists have a rat hooked up by brain to a microchip, in a study that hopes to use technology to repair stroke victims ability to form new memories. This fascinating technology inevitably leads to discussions of cyber-crime scenarios wherein it would be possible for someone to “hack” an individual’s robotic prosthesis. The ripple effect of this information is staggering, because as cyber-crime expert Mark Goodman states, “Now, for the first time ever, in the history of humanity, we have the human body subject to cyber attack.”

Finally, after six months of work, the “cyber-Frankenstein” is nearly ready and receives a make-over of sorts. Bertolt Meyer’s face is mapped in 3 dimensions, and a silicon mask will be placed over the skull. This is the part of the experiment, that is the most unsettling to Meyer, as he stands back, looking at a bulky collection of prosthetics and biomechanics, suddenly wearing his face. While watching his negative reaction surrounded by tittering engineers, it’s hard not to compare this moment to Mary Shelly’s meeting of creature and creator. It’s at this moment that Meyer excuses himself from his company, throwing open the door in a forceful fashion.

Meyer’s strong reaction to the “cyber-Frankenstein”, ultimately leads to thoughts on aesthetics. He’s no doubt put off by this bulky bionic man now wearing his face. He even suggests that his own prosthesis was, at one time, neither human nor bionic and thus was unpleasing to the eye. After Meyer’s disappointment at the finished creature, he visits the JHU Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to look at the most advanced bionic limb being developed. The “Modular Prosthetic Limb” is still in development and currently exists as a research project being spearheaded by the U.S military. Meyer, one of only three people to try the limb in development, experiences first hand the nuanced technology at work in the MPL, and is able to operate the hand in a matter of minutes, whereas his previous limb took him months to master. This is the real turning point for Bertolt Meyer, because he gets to see a new level of control in the world of bionic limbs that has not been available before.

The finale of THE INCREDIBLE BIONIC MAN has Bertholt Meyer taking the “cyber-Frankenstein” to a tailor, and clothing the creature in order to make him less upsetting to look at. This humorous moment perfectly sums up the whole of this documentary. Humans are more than the sum of their parts and the “cyber-Frankenstein” shows us that we can manufacture parts of our anatomy, but we cannot replace the whole of ourselves.

THE INCREDIBLE BIONIC MAN is a fascinating documentary that gives us insight not only into the technological frontier that we’re currently exploring, but also questions what it means for us to be human. The technology on display is staggering, but this special should be lauded for its attention to the questionable side of science. Ultimately, This documentary goes far in showing us how far we’ve come, but by comparison how far we still must go. I can’t recommend the THE INCREDIBLE BIONIC MAN strongly enough. As soon as it’s available watch it. You won’t be disappointed.


Premieres Sunday October 20 at 9PM ET/OT On The Smithsonian Channel


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Robert Walker
Robert Walker 152 posts

Rob Walker is a writer and filmmaker in Colorado, and is creator of the comedy web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre. He loves horror films and comic books (American Vampire, Jonah Hex, The Flash, Planetary). Rob has been a Sherlockian since the age of ten, is a Dark Tower junky and believes that Indiana Jones is the greatest cinematic hero ever created. You can follow him on twitter at: @timidwerewolf and see his other writings and videos at