'Cyborg' fears of bionic man team

The pair behind a new Channel 4 show about a 'bioinic' man, say that a future where living flesh and computer chips become one will arrive "sooner" than we expect.

Both experts say that a future where living flesh and computer chips become one will arrive "sooner" than we expect. (Image: Channel 4)

The two experts behind a new Channel 4 show about a 'bionic' man admit they were spooked by some of what they saw - including cyborgs made by the U.S. Army.

One presenter was perturbed by experiments where chips were inserted in the brains of living rats, to 'enhance' their memory.

The U.S. military's hi-tech research wing DARPA is developing humanoid robots which 'look like The Terminator', says the programme's robot expert. 

Both experts say that a future where living flesh and computer chips become one will arrive "sooner" than we expect.

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Bertolt Meyer, a social psychologist from Switzerland - who himself has a bionic left hand - and robotics expert Rich Walker can be seen on How To Make A Bionic Man on Thursday night at 9pm.

The expert duo both believe the billions spent researching and developing bionic technology is a force for good - but the technology have negative outcomes if created for the wrong reasons.

Show presenter Bertolt admits he was perturbed by experiments placing chips in the brains of rats to enhance their memory, : "What I took from the programme is that a future in which we have bionic technology that will go beyond evolutionary limits is more possible and will take place sooner than I believed.

"When it comes to fears about augmenting human capabilities above evolutional boundaries, I can understand these fears as I share them. Technological advances are neither good or bad it is the way we use them and make them available. There will be an issue if the proliferation is solely driven by business."

But he said: "As long as this technology is made to replace functionality that has been lost there is no reason to be afraid. It helps level out the negative consequences of disability, disease and illness."

Rich, the CEO of Shadow Robot, which helped build the $1m bionic man featured in the programme's title, agreed – although he admitted work done by the American defence body DARPA had spooked him.

He said: "When you see the show there are one or two sequences of stuff being developed by DARPA which are actually really scary. Humanoid robots that look like something out of Terminator and those do worry me. Equally, I am heartened at the same time that DARPA has put a couple of hundred million dollars into the development of newer and better prosthetics."

Speaking of what viewers will see, Rich added: "These are test systems to test equipment but you look at them and say that is a pretty spooky thing and the robots in Terminator look exactly like that. It doesn't mean those will be the Terminator robots in the future but they are as close as we are seeing at the moment."

Both Bertolt and Rich have witnessed how bionic technology can change lives for the better and say it is a world apart from fears often generated by comic books, futuristic TV shows and sci-fi movies.

Bertolt explained: "I think people will always find things to worry about when it comes to this. The fear is so deeply rooted in popular culture such as video games and movies where the evil cyborg rises and causes damage."

However, he said the creation of the bionic man highlights a wide variety of different artificial body parts and organs currently or nearly available for human transplant and benefit.

His view is echoed by Rich who believes this is the first time anyone has attempted to put them altogether into one body. He said: "It is as close as we could get to an artificial person. It has vision, hearing, it doesn't have taste but it can grasp and hold things. It has feet and knees that work. It has a heart and the biggest set of artificial body parts that we could get that would reasonably be put onto a human now.

"So we ruled out a couple of things such as an artificial digestive system but it has an artificial heart, pancreas, kidney and lung, a prototype spleen, artificial blood and blood vessels and a trachea."

The bionic man also has a camera between the eyes that works an artificial retina using a chip on the back of the eyeball to create partial sight.

Alongside that Rich's team installed a Kinect-style camera to enable it to see an object and grasp it. In the film it picks up a can and pours it into glass.

However, the 'man' can't walk by itself. Its knees and feet would work on a human but one of the biggest challenges faced by the creators was replicating the signals within human nerves that prosthetics needs to move.

Bertolt added: "There is a lot we cannot replace and won't be able to for a very long time like the brain, intelligence, emotion and self-awareness.

"The prosthesis rely on being attached to a living human body to create signals to work. We won't replace humans but we can probably soon augment humans beyond the functionality that evolution has planned. That raises all sorts of ethical dilemmas that we raise awareness about in the programme."

These ethical issues are already high on the agenda of scientists, robotics experts and funding bodies throughout the European Union said Rich, who added: "It is vital people engage with technology. If it develops in isolation it will develop without a human factor or face."

However, much of the technology still isn't superior to the human body. Speaking of his own bionic hand Bertolt joked: "Whenever someone sees my hand they seem to automatically assume that it gives me some sort of superpowers, like I can crush things with it."

His hand, the iLimb was developed by British company Touch Bionics in Edinburgh, and despite being the best available in the world is limiting.

Bertolt said: "Although it looks quite futuristic and can do many things is not a replacement for a healthy hand. It is a good example of where the technology still has a lot of limitations.

"It is way too slow and you can't individually move the fingers. You can only do entire gestures in an open and closed fashion. It picks up muscle signals to work but it is not precise enough to control delicate movement."

With media interest and viewers' eyes expected to focus on the bionic man taking centre stage in the programme, Bertolt believes it is important we should not oversell its capabilities.

He added: "It is fairly limited in what it can do and from that I do take comfort."

How To Build A Bionic Man, Channel 4, Thursday February 7, 9pm