Friday, February 18, 2005

We Have the Technology

Perhaps you are one of millions looking forward to the new Star Wars film. You may even have seen promotional photos from the film, such as a pretty good look at Anakin Skywalker's cybernetic right arm. This is nothing new for long time Science Fiction fans; for decades, cybernetics has been a key ingredient in many of the best SF stories. From Doctor Who's Cybermen to Star Trek's Borg, cybernetic organisms have been some of the coolest characters ever created. Those of us who were young boys in the 1970s fondly recall a cyborg who was also an All-American Hero -- Steve Austin, the Six-Million Dollar Man. In 1976, "bionic" was a household word. And who can forget the opening voiceover: "We have the technology"?

Well, guess what? We do. And it's right here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Local researchers are getting world wide attention with an enhancement to a monkey. (You have to start somewhere, I suppose.) A connection between a "neural prosthesis" (a.k.a. robotic arm) and the brain allows the creature to feed itself using the new arm. It doesn't seem to do much else, but this is a major breakthrough. Eventually, neurobiologists may be able to use this technology to assist humans with neural disorders and missing limbs. Plenty of details need to be worked out first, requiring many years of research.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where the research is being conducted, is just a few blocks from my office. A couple of weeks ago, James Lileks expressed concern about working for a newspaper whose offices are near the site of human-animal hybrid experiments. He seemed quite worried about the results of such scientific study. I am not worried; in fact, I would be willing to put our Pitts-Borg Monkeys up against his Minneapolis Man-Pigs anytime.

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