Becoming the Bionic Man


Friday, August 31, 2012

Charlie Neumann is a scientist at a design company. After a gruesome accident destroys his leg, he becomes obsessed with creating a prosthetic limb superior to his old biological ones — stronger, smarter, and better-looking. Eventually, he severs his other leg to get a matched pair.

Charlie is the protagonist of Machine Man, a novel by Max Barry. But his story has a real parallel in Hugh Herr, a leading bionics developer at MIT, and a double amputee following a mountain-climbing accident. Herr has developed legs that allow him to climb better than he could previously. With a generation of young injured veterans needing prostheses, the need to build mechanical limbs that equal or exceed natural ones is urgent.

Hugh Herr mountain-climbingHerr climbing with prosthetic legs
(Courtesy of iWalk)

Will artificial limbs ever get so good that able-bodied people will want them? “People with ‘normal’ minds and bodies, I predict, will volunteer to use these technologies to go beyond what nature intended,” Herr thinks. “Maybe we shouldn't be cell- and tissue-centric. Maybe we shouldn't view our biological hand as the end-all."

Produced by Jonathan Mitchell, with performances by Ed Herbstman and Chet Siegel.

(Originally aired: November 4, 2011)


Video: iWalk PowerFoot Gait Animation

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Jonathan Mitchell

Comments [9]


Listening to you speak about prosthetics as superior to our original limbs really hit home for me. Not too long ago, I thought I would be better off having my feet removed and replaced with prosthetic ones, since I can't walk without pain. My husband thought it was too drastic a solution and I would suffer phantom pain anyway. What's the truth about phantom pain after amputation?

Sep. 02 2012 06:41 PM
Patrick Brennan from Newbury, MA

May I add one more? I would give us the ability to feel and experience the effects that our actions/inactions, words, etc. have on each and every person we interact with. This is apparently a common feature of near-death experiences (lots on YouTube), which is why I thought of it. Oh, and take away the fear of death (another common NDE feature) from everyone - think of the health care dollars saved!!! .

Sep. 02 2012 03:12 PM
Patrick Brennan from Newbury, MA

If I could change anything - I would lower our brain's threshold for having "the runner's high", meaning we'd get a dopamine release within the first minute of light exercise, that would continue to intensify as we exercised. Aerobic exercise increases hippocampal neurogenesis, making more new memory cells available for learning. When an early morning, pre-class exercise program was instituted at a school in which violent confrontations were common, those events dropped significantly - and we eat less chocolate after a 15 minute walk! So I'd tweak the melon, that's what I'd do.

Sep. 02 2012 03:06 PM
Margaret from Charlottesville, VA

I only tuned in to the last few min., however, let me say this: I would have changed the fact that I have Bipolar I disorder! This has played havoc with my life, ruining my marriage, requiring hospitalizations, alienating friends, making me homeless, skyrocketing my health insurance, preventing me from EVER keeping a good job, making me far less capable of handling stress than others, worrying my two kids. It took me 50 yrs to learn to manage it WELL, which required a plethora of factors, human, and pharmaceutical.
Your speaker might consider m.i. in a bit more depth. The brain does not "turn into mush" with Alzheimer's. It is a fatal disease in which the brain cannot communicate well because of increased spacing, in effect, its own disappearance.

Sep. 02 2012 12:01 PM
Terry Stark from Minneapolis, MN

Thoughtful talk related to this subject:

The game developer 2K Games created a suite of games called Bioshock. In an interesting sort of way the creators of the first two releases of Bioshock also explore the theme in this edition of Studio360.

Great program, please keep it up!

Sep. 02 2012 10:31 AM
Tom Chalkley from Baltimore

I guess the cyborg future is inevitable if -- huge if -- we survive long enough in our flawed meat-puppet form. Ironically, the flaw in the thinking of many techno-futurists is that they are not taking into account, or taking responsibility for, the environment in which all these techno-marvels are to be accomplished. C'mon, scientists: how are we going to save the plant we've got, and/or survive in the planet we are in the process of getting? I tend to discount all conversations that begin, "So, hundred of years from now, humans are going to..."? Let's not even get into issues of class: WHO will get to be a cyborg? And whatabout everybody else. I'm glad I'll be dead by 2040, thanks.

Sep. 01 2012 03:02 PM
Heidi from Charlottesville, VA

As soon as you asked, "What would you change about your body if you could?" I knew. No more back pain. That would be a wonderful change to my life and allow me to do so much more. However, it also hit me quickly, I would of course overdo it and not get the rest that my body needs as a whole, even if my back were infinitely strong.

I think that transhumanists will find that when they address one "problem" area, there will be many unintended consequences.

Sep. 01 2012 12:19 PM
Joan Mazza from Mineral, VA

I was very disappointed on today's show to hear evolution spoken of in such teleological terms. There is no goal of evolution. The mutations that are selected for are those that work. To speak of randomness and airline construction is to use the same tired and ignorant arguments of creationists. Did this speaker not understand natural selection? Did he not read THE BLIND WATCHMAKER by Richard Dawkins. Very disheartening to hear this on RadioIQ.

Sep. 01 2012 11:50 AM
Joe Fecarotta from Seattle, WA

I loved this interview. I think the future of transhumanism is bright. Will there be missteps? Certainly. But the comment that we back up our computers but our mind is just left out there resonates. As for the Beethoven's 9th comment I only say - would it be as grand as it is if it were but two bars?

Joe Fecarotta

Sep. 01 2012 03:33 AM

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