by Josh Fischman
Synopsis and resource annotations by Max Grinnell
The word "bionic" has been used in science fiction for years, but recent
advances have made robotic arms, eyes, and ears a reality. Bionics is the study
of mechanical systems that function like living organisms or parts of living
organisms and the term is used to describe those individuals whose body parts
are replaced by devices embedded in their nervous systems that respond to
commands from their brains. This thoughtful National Geographic piece by Josh
Fischman explores the cutting-edge world of bionics.
The article begins by profiling Amanda Kitts as she works with her students at
the Kiddie Kottage Learning Center in Tennessee. She is able to inform (and
entertain) her young charges with her robotic arm, which is made out of
flesh-colored plastic, three motors, a metal frame, and rather sophisticated
electronics. Amanda received this robotic replacement arm after she lost her own
arm in a car accident in 2006. This new arm uses sensors that detect impulses
from her brain to move the arm, hand, and fingers. The arm has extended her own
physical abilities and has also helped her to cope with the emotional loss of
Many patients suffering from limb loss retain the nerves and brain functionality
to use replacement limbs. Within their brain, "below the level of consciousness,
lives an intact image of that arm, a phantom." In recent years, advances in
microscopic electrodes and surgical implants have transformed the lives of more
than those with missing limbs, it has begun to help those who were previously
unable to see, hear, or in many cases, move.
Bionics, which combines mechanical engineering, anatomy, and robotics, is made
possible by many trial and error sessions and experimentation and the field is
often defined as a restoration process. According to Joseph Pancrazio, program
director for neural engineering at the National Institute of Neurological
Disorders and Stroke, "That's really what this work is about: restoration, when
a person with a spinal-cord injury can be in a restaurant, feeding himself, and
no one else notices, that is my definition of success."
Todd Kuiken at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) has been working on
the "bionic arm" for years; Kuiken knew that nerves in an amputee's stump could
still carry signals from the brain, and he was able to develop a connection from
the brain to the prosthesis. It was a complicated process that involved some
experimentation, but eventually he was able to make these vital connections. The
technique remains experimental, but it is hoped that eventually it could be as
common as the hearing device known as the cochlear implant.
The piece ends by examining the improvements that have been made with cochlear
implants, bionic eyes, electrodes for quadriplegics, and the possibility of
using neural prosthetics to allow afflicted patients to move remote objects with
Found below is a list of useful resources that will illuminate and enhance
understanding of the topics found within this article.
The first link
take visitors to the homepage of the Robotics Academy at Carnegie Mellon
University. The site includes educational resources for educators, including
lesson plans and videos.
The second link
to a lesson plan designed to help students learn how to develop a functioning
robot arm with everyday materials.
Moving on, the third
leads to a paper from researchers at McGill University that will be
most useful for college professors who might be looking into developing a course
in medical robotics.
The fourth link
to the University of Toronto's Artificial Perception Lab, which includes
materials related to their work on artificial information systems and robotics.
The last link
a site that provides some educational activities about the human body and how
the skeletal system functions and will help students understand some of the
anatomy discussed in the article above.