“Whatever Happened to the Bionic Man?” by Robert E. Hampson
This article marks a return . . . of sorts. For many years I wrote science essays for Baen, mostly written under my pseudonym Tedd Roberts. That changed in 2018 with "Fixing Broken Memory," however, that was also nearly my last science essay for Baen in many years. It marked the start of an exciting new chapter of science communication, interviews, podcasts, documentaries, and publication of my own science fiction. Moreover, from that point onward, my pseudonym was no longer necessary, given that I had gained recognition in both science and science fiction circles as a professor who used science fiction as part of science education and outreach.
Which brings us to March 2023, and the release of The Moon and the Desert, a book dedicated to a topic which greatly influenced both of my careers. The afterword to the book contains two important pieces of information—the first is how Martin Caidin's novel Cyborg—the inspiration for the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man—influenced my choice of scientific careers. The book was released in 1972, and the TV series in 1974. I watched it faithfully. Every episode, every season.
I wanted to do that—to study and be involved in the science of bionics.
[From the cover of The Moon and the Desert, 2023, Baen Books.
Cover art by Dominic Harman, 2023.]
In 1979, I graduated from college, intent on going to medical school to study neurosurgery. It didn't happen; I was too young. Have I mentioned that I graduated high school at 16 and college at 19? I wasn't a perfect student, and medical schools didn't want underage students who weren't absolute prodigies. So, I went to graduate school at a university known for engineering. If I couldn't be a neurosurgeon, I would be a neural engineer.
Except that field didn't really exist. I call it that now, because there is such a field, but at the time? No. There was physiology and there was engineering. I learned of a professor at the grad school doing prosthetics work, but much to my dismay, it was material science—developing new metal alloys for artificial knees.
The field of bionics—my dream job—didn't exist.
I finished my master's degree and went to medical school—except as a Ph.D., not M.D., student. I took the same classes as the docs, but when they went to clinic, I went to the lab. I studied physiology and pharmacology, which eventually morphed into neuroscience, a sort of catch-all for the sciences that involve nerves, muscles, brain, and everything controlled or affected by brain disorders. My lab did a lot of drug studies, but I became fascinated by memory, and concentrated my work on the brain regions that create and store memory. I also slowed down a bit. High school at 16, college at 19, master's at 22 was a bit hectic. Part of it was real life (engaged at 25, married at 26, but didn't finish the Ph.D. until 28), but the bigger part was that I became totally immersed in the science, making it my own, even as I stayed part of one of the most productive teams in the field.
Many folks have heard me tell of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—DARPA, the Department of Defense agency that "funds science fiction"—meeting in 2019 where I looked around at the room and realized that the science of bionics was right there.
In that room.
Finally . . . and I was part of it.
That meeting showcased a patient with a titanium rod fused to his upper arm bone. The rod served as the attachment point for a revolutionary arm and hand prosthetic that was fully articulated and controlled by the patient's nerves and muscles that would normally connect to the biological forearm and hand. Also present at the meeting was a team that had implanted electrodes in the brain of several volunteers. The electrodes picked up signals in the "motor cortex" of the brain, the area that generates signals for moving arms, legs, and the rest of the body's movements. Those signals were then used to control robotic arms, restoring a small bit of independence to the patients who were quadriplegic—had lost the ability to voluntarily move any muscles below the neck.
There were teams using brain electrodes to reduce tremors in Parkinson's patients, to combat anxiety and depression, to suppress epileptic seizures. Plus, my team, present to demonstrate our technique for restoring memory by means of implanted electrodes and computerlike devices that could detect (and correct) brain states associated with normal and impaired memory.
The field of Bionics was there, in that room, and I was surrounded by the colleagues who created it.
I owe this to them, and to visionaries like Jack Steele, Martin Caidin, and producer Glen Larson, to bring this vision up to date, sprinkled with the real science of bionics, and what it has meant to both the researchers and the volunteers who test it.
The Moon and the Desert is my love letter to neuroscience, and to the field of Bionics. It is a way to bring both of my worlds together into one.
# # #
Just as fantasy stories start with "a long time ago . . ." and science fiction starts with "a galaxy far away . . ." and military fiction starts with "no . . . kidding . . . there I was . . ." This story starts with "One small step . . ."
At least, that was the intended effect, to benefit mankind in space. So perhaps it actually starts earlier, with an army doctor named Jack E. Steele . . .
The Ghost of Jack Steele
Jack Steele started off studying engineering in 1942, but the small matter of a war got in the way. After four years in the U.S. Army during World War I, he returned to college to study pre-medicine, and earned his doctorate in medicine in 1950. After a year as a teaching fellow, Steele returned to the military and served twenty years in the Air Force until retirement. He joined the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory (AMRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where he coined a term to reference "bio-like" or "life-like" biologically inspired engineering. In 1960, Steele led a three-day symposium using his new term "bionics," which referred to studying biology to solve engineering problems.
[Cover of the technical report from the 1960 symposium]
Steele intended the new field to bring principles of biology to engineering. He envisions spacecraft parts that could unfold themselves like the petals of a flower, and devices that would harvest sunlight for power via photosynthesis. The idea of combining those functions into humans was not part of his original plan, even though he acknowledged the possibility.
What we now call bionics would arise from a parallel development under the AMRL and the Air Force Directorate of Advanced Systems Technology. The AMRL helped prepare America's first astronauts, and engaged in some of the first research to propose augmenting living organisms with artificial technology. The first mention of cybernetic organisms, or "cyborgs," was also in 1960, by Australian inventor Manfred Clynes and American scientist Nathan Kline who proposed the integration of technology to assist in human exploration of space. The association of Steele's bionics and AMRLs research into cyborgs cemented the popular science fiction pairing of bionics with high-technology prosthetics.
In the early 1970's, author and aviation expert Martin Caidin knew many of the researchers at AMRL and became aware of the twin fields of bionics and cybernetic organisms. Caidin incorporated the concepts into his novel Cyborg, published in 1972. The novel would inspire the 1974 TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, and the world would be introduced to the notion of a human augmented by "bio-like" machinery and electronics—a "bionic man."
[Covers of the 1972 original (left) and 1974 reprinting (right) of Caidin's book.]
Many science fiction-influenced college students entered the fields of biology, medicine and engineering in the 1960's, 70's and 80's hoping to be involved in the exciting field of "bionic" artificial limbs, eyes, and ears, only to find that the field didn't really exist except in theory. On the other hand, many of those same idealistic young researchers produced the first cochlear implants in the late 1970's to restore human hearing, and the first retinal implant in 2000, to restore vision. The range of functions and the degree to which they mimicked natural senses were very limited at first. The cochlear implant could only reproduce a few frequencies and had difficulty with speech. The first retinal prosthesis consisted of a four-by-four square grid of sixteen "pixels" capable of reproducing a single spot of light vs dark. As electrodes, interfaces, and computer processing improved, so did their capabilities so that by the 2010's, hearing implants allow appreciation of music, and vision implants revealed thousands of dots of black, white, and color. Throughout the 2000's experimenters demonstrated that the electrodes on the nerves which remained after arm or leg amputation could control artificial limbs. In 2015, the world was amazed by the first demonstration of a robotic arm controlled entirely via electrodes in a human volunteer's brain, and the first fully articulated, permanently attached prosthetic arm.
Bionic prosthetics had arrived, but it was a bumpy road, with false starts and failures—both historical and current day.
The REAL Bionics
Caidin gave his protagonist two bionic legs, a bionic arm, and a glass eye with a multifunction camera. It is notable that the "bionic" eye giving the protagonist telescopic and night vision was a development by the TV writers. While Caidin and his contacts at AMRL could envision artificial limbs controlled by reconnecting leg and arm nerves, they could not envision (pun intended) a means of connecting external inputs, such as sight, to the brain. Still, Caidin incorporated bionic eye and ear capability in his later books. In fact, in the fourth book, Cyborg IV, Steve Austin is connected directly to a space fighter via his bionics, with full communication between his brain and the spacecraft.
In the 1970's, and into the first half of the 1980's, it was common knowledge that scientists could record the output of the brain in terms of nerve signals that controlled muscles, or that represented activity of individual parts of the brain. Recording the single signals causing muscle movement was easy, nerves were exposed, and electrical signals recorded via cuff and needle electrodes (see baen.com/brainships). Recording directly from the brain was harder, and typically only done in animals, or in humans only in the course of life-or-death brain surgery. In addition, the type of electrode commonly used for recording neural activity was simply a wire—insulated along its length, with only a small area exposed at the tip. Sharpened tungsten electrodes had exposed tips of less than a micron, while stainless steel, nichrome, or platinum iridium wire typically had tip surface areas of about twenty to fifty square microns. The diameter of a single neuron is itself about twenty square microns, so these electrodes were good for recording only one neuron at a time (or recording more neurons, but with no way to distinguish individual neurons or functions). Brain processes usually involve tens to hundreds of neurons at a time, and recording that many neurons required bundles of wires that were difficult to implant and even more difficult to identify which neurons were recorded by which electrode. Technology to easily configure "arrays" of electrodes didn't arise until the late 1980's with recording electrodes that resembled printed circuits, with multiple small regions of metal recording surfaces, manufactured in geometric patterns to record from or stimulate many neurons in many different areas and provides many orders of magnitude more information to be either recorded or stimulated. The "Utah Array" utilized in many labs working on arm and leg prosthetics, were patented in 1993, and provided the ability to record from one hundred or more motor cortex neurons at a time.
[Utah array, from Richard A. Normann
US Patent #5,215,088, public domain.]
As we look to the future, modern (2022) digital printing (both 2-D and 3-D) extends this development by allowing configuration of electrodes with many recording sites in a small area, as well as curvatures and shapes that closely mimic the region of the brain to be implanted. The company Neuralink, founded by Elon Musk, has recently achieved notice for their "neural lace" electrodes consisting of fine filaments that are implanted in a manner similar to the action of a sewing machine. Other designs such as "neural dust" developed by researchers at Berkeley, eliminate the problematic need to connect wiring between the electrodes and recording electronics. These nanometer-sized devices consist of a recording site, electronic amplifier, and an ultrasound transceiver. They communicate with external computers and devices wirelessly. While still experimental, the combination of integrated electronics and wireless communication with drastically reduced size suggests a time when high density recording of the brain will be accomplished with minimal surgery and no disruption of the brain tissue itself.
# # #
Advances in bionics also required a fundamental shift from simply recording, to also stimulating the brain. The pioneering (and somewhat controversial) work of neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield had demonstrated that application of electrical current directly to the brain caused different reactions, depending on where the stimulus was applied. Stimulating the motor cortex produced muscle twitches, stimulating sensory cortex produced sensations (such as the famous "I can smell burnt toast," and stimulating the temporal lobe activated memories. Penfield and Herbert Jasper published this work in 1951 as the landmark Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain.
"Penfield's homunculus" mapped various motor and sensory functions of the body onto specific locations of the human brain, allowing for the next stage in bionic development—brain-controlled prosthetics—but first, scientists and surgeons would have to develop long-lasting electrodes and controllers. Moreover, "output" prosthetics were considered relatively easy; after all, there were many ways, both inside and outside the body, to detect nerve signals to control an arm or leg. "Input" prosthetics would prove to be much harder.
The First Bionics
Cochlear implants were the first true "neural" prosthetics, and dates from research at multiple institutions in the 1970s. The implant consists of a computerized sound processor linked to a long electrode implanted into the cochlea—the primary sensory organ for sound. The cochlea is much like a coiled pipe or a seashell. The structure is "tuned" to respond to different sound frequencies, or pitches, at different distances along the "pipe." Neurons (in this case, sensory cells rather than generic brain cells) located at various distances along the cochlea are thus likewise "tuned" to respond to different frequencies of sound. The electrode of a cochlear implant is implanted lengthwise through the cochlea, so that different locations along the electrode can deliver precise electrical signals to the neurons at that point in the cochlea. The sound processor of a cochlear implant converts different types of sounds to a pattern of electrical signals distributed by time and space (distance along the cochlea) allowing the information about sound qualities to be picked up by the rest of the ear and brain's normal systems for processing sounds.
[Left: Cochlear implant. Image credit: Blausen.com staff (2014).
"Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014". WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010.
ISSN 2002-4436. - Own work.
Right: Argus II retinal implant.
Image credit: Second Sight, Inc. company prospectus (discontinued in 2020).]
Retinal implants work in a similar manner, in which video from a camera is processed into "pixels" which in turn are used to stimulate electrode sites placed against the back of the eye. Like the cochlear implant, a retina implant is designed not to replace the eye, but to activate the retinal tissue that remains after diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration have damaged the light-sensitive cells of the eye. Development of retinal implants has been ongoing since the 1990s and underwent considerable expansion to 100 and even 1000 discrete "pixels," allowing patients to read (slowly, one letter at a time) and to see object shapes by contrast and edges.
Cochlear implants are still in use, with tens of thousands of patients in the U.S. alone. The devices gain sophistication each year in terms of processing to deliver more detailed auditory experience. In a sad commentary on the development and advancement of neurotechnology, the Argus II was discontinued in 2020 and the company no longer exists. Only a few dozen patients were ever tested with this retinal prosthetic, and those are now without support or repair for obsolete components.
These devices are still not the fully cybernetic "bionic ear" or "bionic eye" we may have expected. Such an interface requires connection directly to the part of the brain that decodes the signals from the retina or cochlea. We're still a long way from McCaffrey's Brain Ships or Caidin's Bionic Man . . . but science and neurotechnology is progressing. Current science is experimenting with electrode arrays targeting auditory and visual cortex, although there is much work yet to be done. The current limitations are, in no particular order, complexity of the signals that have to be interfaced with the brain, longevity of the electrodes then need to interface with the brain, complexity of the prosthetic (such as number of pixels in the visual field, or the multitude of movement possible at a single joint), powering the prosthetic, and weight of the prosthetic.
In 2006, DARPA announced a program to develop a wearable bionic arm within four years. The timeline was considered overly ambitious, and failure was predicted, yet the first bionic arm prototype was delivered within two years, and the first volunteers recruited within four years. This Revolutionizing Prosthetics (RP) program was extended twice, with the "consumer" version of the arm (developed by DEKA Research & Development Corp.) released in 2017. The third and final iteration of the program (known as "RP3") ended just before the 2019 DARPA Joint Program Review meeting referenced above.
Two parallel development paths were pursued under the RP programs: the first pathway involved developing direct brain control of a robotic arm. In 2014, Jan Scheuermann became the first person to control a robotic arm solely by thinking about moving her own arm. Jan was quadriplegic, having lost all ability to move arms, hands, legs and feet due to a fast-moving disease. She had two Utah Array (see above) electrodes implanted on the part of her brain that controlled her left arm and was able to operate the robotic arm and hand by imagining the movement of her natural limb. Eventually Jan had to have the electrodes removed, but at a recent meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, four of the volunteers for that program (many still had functional electrodes) were present to showcase the neurotechnology developed by the program and its successors. The ability to control a robotic facsimile of a human arm is not quite the same as having a fully-functioning, wearable prosthetic, but it provides valuable information in brain-to-machine interfacing, as well as restoring important self-care functions to the volunteers.
[Johnny Matheny displays his bionic forearm and hand,
courtesy of John's Hopkins University's Advanced Physics Laboratory.
Image credit: JHU APL]
The second development pathway resulted in peripheral nerve-controlled prosthetic arms. Johnny Matheny lost his left arm to cancer in 2007. A surgeon performed two operations on the remaining arm—the first relocated muscle-control nerves from underneath muscle, to just under the skin of the upper arm; the second fused a titanium rod to the upper arm bone and closed the skin around the rod, leaving an attachment for a bionic arm and hand that did not require a socket prone to pressure injury and discomfort. After years of testing in the clinic and laboratory, Johnny took home his fully articulated arm and hand in 2018, and even learned to play the piano.
The legacy of RP3 is not only the testing of brain-controlled, and nerve-controlled prosthetics, but the introduction of legislation and regulation to allow such prosthetics to be prescribed and costs reimbursed by insurance and Medicare. Furthermore, the fact that the arm prosthetics do not (necessarily) require brain implants makes them more accessible (and acceptable) to the general public.
But what of the legs? Why did the DARPA program concentrate on a bionic arm and not on bionic legs?
One reason is because spring-based leg prosthetics have been so successful. "Running blades" such as the Flex-Foot Cheetah by biomedical engineer Van Phillips, have become popular among athletes and Paralympians. South African runner Oscar Pistorius earned eight medals over four paralympic games, and medaled in eight paralympic games, and in 2012, became the first amputee to run in the Olympics. While the remainder of Pistorius' professional life was filled with controversy, he established that amputees could compete beside fully limbed runners. In addition, variations on the Cheetah, now made by the Icelandic company Össur, are used by over ninety percent of amputee runners . . . and make no mistake, there are many, many runners now that lower leg amputation is no longer a barrier to running.
Another champion of lower leg prosthetics is Amy Purdy, who lost her legs to sepsis at age nineteen. She didn't let that stop her, though, competing as a snowboarder within a year of the amputation, and competing in the TV show "The Amazing Race" in 2012, and on "Dancing with the Stars" in 2014. In the course of the show, she demonstrated her everyday, competition, and "formal" prosthetics. As with the blade-style prosthetics, her artificial legs were purely kinetic, operating via joints, hinges and springs. For many amputees, such passive prosthetics are sufficient to resume activity, even as they fall so far short of restoring normal movement and ability. Thus it is no surprise that considerations for myoelectric prosthetics are in development. A recent article by Fleming et al. in the Journal of Neural Engineering, 2021 (J Neural Eng. 2021 Jul 27; 18(4): 10.1088/1741-2552/ac1176.), reviewed interfaces, control and challenges in the development of bionic legs.
Caidin's bionic man is entirely a product of the times: military test pilot, astronaut, and cold warrior. Likewise, the materials used for Steve Austin's bionics were based on the best materials available at that time. Austin had titanium bones, copper wiring for nerves, servos and gears for muscles, all covered with a silicone skin. Five decades of biomedical science have revealed that titanium bones that are strong enough to support the weight of bionics are actually too heavy. Ceramics are often too brittle, therefore modern ceramic matrix composites have been developed in which fibers (typically carbon fiber or silicon carbide) are embedded into ceramic to increase strength while maintaining low weight. Furthermore, addition of metal ions, such as magnesium, increase hardness without increasing brittleness.
The downside of metal/ceramic matrix composites is that the metalized compounds often cause immune reactions and are subject to corrosion in the salt-water environment of the human body. A 2020 paper by Safari et al. (ACS Biomater. Sci. Eng. 2020, 6, 11, 6253–6262.https://doi.org/10.1021/acsbiomaterials.0c00613) proposes embedding magnesium in graphene to drastically slow degradation. While the paper proposed these materials for biodegradable applications, it is not beyond imagining that simply sheathing a composite in graphite film would produce a stable bone substitute that was lighter and stronger than native bone.
Polyimide films can be printed with conductive metals using photolithography—the same technique used for creating printed circuits such as silicon computer chips—yielding flexible extremely light "wiring." One of the first polyimide films was called "Kapton" by the manufacturer, DuPont. It was invented in the 1960's and was used to insulate wiring in the Apollo command and lunar modules and was used on the lunar module as a light-weight alternative to metal or plastic outer covering (note, Kapton, a polyimide, was used, not "mylar," a polyester, as commonly misrepresented). The latest formulation, Kapton E, was used to build the sunshield for the James Webb space telescope. Unfortunately, the 1960's polyimide formulations such as Kapton did not age well in warm, humid environments, and would not have been appropriate for bionic wiring, likely why it was not considered by Caidin. However, modern polyimide and silicon carbide films are used for everything from electrodes to control wiring in medical implants and have definitely proved their utility for bionics and neural implants.
Even using advanced materials, substituting pistons, gears, and pulley for muscles is terribly inefficient. However, in 1880, German scientist William Roentgen, better known for his work on X-rays, demonstrated that natural rubber contracted when exposed to an electrostatic field. In 1925, a material was formed with a piezoelectric effect—the ability to produce an electrostatic field when deformed. With these two properties, electrically active polymers (EAPs) came into their own during the late 1960's. By the 70's the development of dielectric EAPs concentrated on conductive rather than contractile properties. In the 1990's, an ionic polymer-metal composite (IPMC) was developed which produced a high rate of contraction at low voltages (one-to-two volts). DARPA-funded research resulted in an EAP using silicone and acrylic, which was spun into a company called Artificial Muscle (2003) which is now a subsidiary of Bayer.
Until the last decade, all communication between electrodes and computer or electronic devices has been via discrete wires. Wired connections are bulky and present an infection risk where they exit the skin to connect to external devices. Neural devices such as the cochlear or retinal implants solve this problem by placing the electronics under the skin and using inductive coils on the inside and outside to provide power and communications. The problem is inductive coils are limited in power, range and bandwidth. The opposing coils must be placed within millimeters, and precisely aligned (usually via powerful magnets). In ideal conditions, standard inductive coupling is only a few hundred thousand bits per second (i.e. 200 Kbps). New coil and transceiver technologies can boost that ten to twenty-fold (6-10 Mbps at up to ten-millimeter distances). By comparison, the USB 3.0 standard (which requires data to be converted from parallel—every channel has its own wire—to serial in which each channel is sent in a rotating sequence over the same wires) transmits at 5 Gbps, which is 200 times more data per second than even the latest inductive coils. Given that the brain signals utilized by Jan Scheuermann to controlling the DARPA robotic arm was recorded from 100-200 recording sites, at speeds of 360,000, thus requiring 72Mbps—easy enough to do with USB, i.e. wires, but difficult to do with current state of the art medical device wireless.
But what of the other wireless technologies such as Near Field Communication (NFC), used in everything from cell-phone-based credit card payments to reading continuous glucose monitors? NFC still requires proximity 10-20 millimeters, but less precise positioning than inductive coils, but is still limited to a best-case data rate of just over 6 Mbps with 2022 technology. The 5G wireless telecommunication standard promises peak data transmission of 20 Gbps, with average rates of 100 Mbps, making it of potential value for wireless bionic communication. To implement wireless communication by implanted electrodes, it is necessary to incorporate electronic amplification and wireless transceivers into the electrodes themselves. However, the biggest challenge scientists and engineers face is power and heat. The electronics must be powered by batteries, and experience has shown that wireless communication uses enough power that batteries would have to be charged (wirelessly!) every two-to-five days. Another issue is heat, an increase of internal temperature more than 1 degree Celsius will damage human body tissue. Fortunately, power and heat are two sides of the same problem, and the medical device industry is exploring how to do more (data) with less power (and heat).
The researchers at Johns Hopkins Advanced Physics Lab demonstrated that wireless "WiFi" communication between skin surface sensors and a bionic arm and hand is possible. Johnny Matheny is able to control his bionic limb with sensors that communicate wirelessly—but only for a few hours a day. The batteries for the arm itself last two-to-three times as long as for the wireless system, so Johnny also has a wired version for extended use.
Thus, any implementation of bionics for all-day, multi-day use will need new advances in communication technology. The wiring will need to be completely embedded within the body, yet still have the capacity for external communication for programming, maintenance, and upgrades. It is not too much of a stretch to believe that within the next ten years, we will see further improvement in communication—possibly even utilizing quantum physics—meeting the requirements for fully integrated bionic limbs.
For The Moon and the Desert, I must confess to a bit of hand waving with respect to how to power the bionics. Caidin's original work proposed flywheel "batteries" that would store kinetic energy from Steve Austin's movements, and directly couple to the pulleys and gears that operated his bionics. Consistent with the space age and "atomic era" sensibilities, the TV show claimed that the bionics were powered by nuclear power generators, although it is not stated whether these were actual nuclear reactors, or radiologic nuclear-thermal generators such as were developed for satellites and figured prominently in the book and movie The Martian by Andy Weir.
The robotic arms developed by DARPA for quadriplegic use are not considered "wearable" and thus are built into an apparatus that can use either large batteries or even convention electric power outlets. Wearables such as the JHU APL and "LUKE" arm by DEKA contain conventional batteries which must be recharged—generally nightly. As the technology to increased stored energy catches up to efforts to reduce power consumption, it is not unthinkable that future bionics could be powered by capacitors or compact, lightweight batteries which function for days on a single charge and would be recharged as the wearer sleeps. [If pressed, I will wave my hands and claim "super capacitors" for Glenn Shepard's power source.]
Bionic Men and Women
In Caidin's book, Steve Austin's bionics were paid for by emergency congressional allocation of a "black budget" for the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) of the Central Intelligence Agency. The intent was for Austin to serve as an intelligence agent for missions too difficult or dangerous for an unaugmented human. His bionics were designed for stamina, not strength or speed, his arm was little more than a battering ram, and one finger was hollow and contained a poison dart gun. Austin-the-spy was cold-blooded, and effectively prepared to be an assassin if the situated demanded. In the TV series, Steve was considerably warmed and softened. He was reluctant to kill (although it happened if necessary), he clashed with his OSI boss over mission objectives, and that agency was distanced somewhat from the CIA. One common feature to both novel and series was that Steve Austin was a reluctant "volunteer" for the bionic enhancements. The series has Austin warming to his new abilities relatively quickly (over the course of two episodes) but in the novel, the OSI decides to keep him in electrically induced sleep between missions after a suicide attempt and suspicion that he attempted to do so again via overexertion during a mission.
If there is one key difference apparent in the volunteers participating in DARPA's Revolutionizing Prosthetics program is that they are volunteers. At the 2019 DARPA meeting, it was revealed that Johnny Matheny's bionic arm was temporarily taken away at the end of the program (it was later returned once decisions were made how to fund maintenance and repair). Johnny was asked at the meeting whether he would still volunteer even if had had known the arm might eventually be taken away. Johnny responded in the affirmative—even if it was only temporary, it was worth it. Similar sentiments are expressed by many volunteers to this research. Thus, for my story purposes, Glenn Shepard (and Jakob, Victoria, and the others who will follow) had to be volunteers.
Glenn also had to not be a superhuman. On TV, Steve Austin could run sixty miles per hour, and lift more than a ton with his arm. The biological and physiological reality is that human bone and muscle cannot support these exertions. Austin (and Glenn Shepard) have normal hips, spine, ribs, and collarbones. The muscles attached to those bones are not reinforced and would have torn with the type of stress depicted. To his credit, Caidin didn't write Austin as a superhero, but simply stronger than human. It is true that bionics (given sufficient power and strong materials) would convey strength and ability well beyond human norms—but only so long as that effort involved only the bionics, and not flesh-and-blood. Still, humans are amazing creatures, and the feats of elite athletes such as ultramarathoners as well as Ironman™ and World's Strongest Man competitors provide a clue to the peak accomplishments of the human body. For Glenn Shepard, I set a goal of ten-to-fifteen percent improvement in peak skill, with the "super" abilities either in the materials of the bionic limbs, or in the endurance of the biological components. This all ties in with the question Glenn (and quite a few amputees, para- and quadriplegics) asks: "Am I still human?"
Jack Steele and colleagues at AMRL envisioned bionics as key to exploration—and exploitation—of space. By utilizing biological principles, from the way solar panels unfold, to computers that mimic neural processes, nature has evolved mechanisms that are energy-efficient and even elegant. Cybernetic augmentation of astronauts would lead to increased strength, stamina, and endurance, as well as resistance to injury or consequences of space radiation, vacuum, and null-/micro-gravity environments.
Caidin wrote his novel in the middle of the Cold War, and envisioned putting those abilities to use in space, but more importantly, in the service of the nation and an intelligence operative better able to handle dangerous assignments. To some extent, the TV series softened the character and made him more human. The volunteers for DARPA-sponsored bionics are much more than that. They are pioneers, yes, but their stories show courage, resilience, tolerance (to pain, more than anything else), and inspiration to those who would follow in their footsteps.
To a scientist with one foot in the military world, and another on the forefront of neural research, those individuals represent hope for restoring quality of life to the injured and damaged. As a writer, I want to capture that. Our Bionic Frontier is one of hope—for everyone—because from the greatest injury can come great strength.
Copyright © 2023 by Robert E. Hampson
Robert E. Hampson is a scientist and author. In his scientific career, he takes concepts once thought to be science fiction, and turns them into practical applications of cutting-edge science. As an author, he uses his background to bring real science to science fiction. He is a teacher, researcher, reviewer, scientific journal editor, and consultant.
Dr. Hampson received a Ph.D. in 1988 in the field of Physiology & Pharmacology, with an interest in Neuroscience. He is a professor of Physiology & Pharmacology, and of Neurology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. His forty-year scientific career has concentrated on understanding the effect of drugs, disease, and injury on human memory. WFUSoM recently awarded Dr. Hampson's multidisciplinary Memory Prosthetic Team, the 2022 Faculty Research Excellence Award for Established Team. As lead scientist and co-founder of Braingrade, Inc., he is helping to develop a medical device to restore human memory function.
Robert Hampson's SF writing career began with several pieces of short fiction published in 2015. He writes military, adventure, and hard-science Science Fiction as well as nonfiction articles explaining science to the general public. The The Moon and the Desert is his fifth novel (including collaborations). He has co-edited two anthologies, published more than 40 works of short fiction and nonfiction.
Robert E. Hampson is available as a consultant through SIGMA—the Science Fiction Think Tank and the Science and Entertainment Exchange (a service of the National Academy of Sciences). His website is REHampson.com.