When Smithsonian Channel gave us an early peek at The Incredible Bionic Man, we were pretty excited. The documentary chronicles a European team’s efforts to make a fully bionic man that walks, talks, and has a working circulatory system. Spoiler alert: It’s amazing. The special is very much worth watching, which you can do online here or on Smithsonian Channel at 9ET/PT Sunday night. Here are five of our favorite takeaways.
The Incredible Bionic Man’s engineering team based its design on a living model: University of Zurich social psychologist Bertolt Meyer, who was born without a left hand and now wears a bionic prosthetic. The charming, self-effacing Meyer makes a terrific lead character for the documentary, and viewers will be amazed to watch his bionic prosthetic hand in action. The Bluetooth-enabled appendage is so beautiful that at first it’s impossible to take your eyes off of it, but it’s so incredibly lifelike that after Meyer’s first few scenes, you stop noticing it’s even there.
While the documentary celebrates these advances in bionics, it also raises some interesting questions about their widespread usage. As bionics become increasingly powerful and lifelike, will we reach a point where trading our hands or legs for bionic ones is actually a smart decision? It’s fascinating to hear bioethicists and scientists raise and debate these points.
One of the most fascinating parts of the documentary is learning what the unexpected hurdles of creating a bionic person are. Arms and hands? These engineers are so brilliant they make that part look relatively easy. But ankles … those are trickier than you’d think. As the doc reveals, our ankles do something like 80 percent of the work when we walk, so any functional bionic leg needs finely tuned bionic ankles.
That’s where Hugh Herr comes in. The director of MIT’s Biomechatronics Research Group was a celebrated rock climber in his youth before losing his lower legs to frostbite. Rather than despairing, the brilliant Herr spent his career perfecting bionic replacements, and the results are incredible. The scenes of Herr walking on his prosthetics are jaw-dropping, but we were totally floored when he scampers up a climbing wall with his prosthetics. You’ve got to see it to believe it.
The Incredible Bionic Man frequently makes nods to the '70s TV smash The Six Million Dollar Man, starring Lee Majors. If the show got remade today, it could slice a full five million bucks off the top of its budget. For all the incredibly sophisticated technology in today's team’s bionic man – including 200 processors and thousands of sensors – the creation was a relative bargain at around $1 million.
For all the amazing breakthroughs scientists and engineers have already made, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. The bionic man’s functioning circulatory system is incredible, but other organs, like the liver, stomach, and intestines, are still beyond our current know-how.
Better yet, existing bionics are still improving. Bertolt Meyer’s bionic hand is a wonder to watch in action, but scenes in which he tries an even more advanced hand being developed at Johns Hopkins show just how many more advances science is on the cusp of making.
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Those are just a few of the standout moments from The Incredible Bionic Man, but it’s worth watching in full. There’s a “Holy cow!” moment almost once a minute, and you’ll walk away feeling optimistic about the future of bionics and organ replacements. Check it out online now or tune in to Smithsonian Channel at 9ET/PT Sunday night.