The Science and Engineering Behind Futuristic Bionics

How are advances in bioengineering allowing people to unlock natural resilience? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Peter Thiel has said that computational power will be used more and more as a tool to decode the mysteries of biology. I think most bioengineers agree with that. And that is in large part what my book is about – that and how this new “power” is being used to actually change people’s lives. Bioengineering is just another tool we can use to repair the body and possibly mind (ethically fraught territory there) when it is broken.

You see the potential most clearly right now in the area of biomechanics and bionics. The human leg is basically a complex web of springs (made of tendons, ligaments, muscles and bones). Every time we take a step, these springs capture energy, juggle it between one another and prepare to reuse it in the next stride – somewhere in the neighborhood of half the energy we expend with each step is elastic recoil energy from the previous one. There are scores of constituent body parts involved in this process.

Hugh Herr at MIT is using the same kind of sensing technologies used to, for instance, record and replicate the way Lebron James moves in his EA sports avatar. Then he has taken these measurements, built a predictive mathematical equation that can tell you, for instance, what impact moving a knee joint two inches to the left, might have on the tautness of a tendon, and the force with which the foot will hit the ground. Then he has put that algorithm on a computer chip, built an artificial leg out of robotic parts, and programmed it to behave like a normal leg. When I visited his lab at MIT, he had a pair of those babies strapped on, and we walked across the icy quad to lunch. If that is not an expression of human resilience – unleashed by bioengineering – I don’t know what is!

We don’t yet have the sensing and computational power to measure the firing patterns of billions of individual neurons in the human brain, reach into the cortex, and decode “imagined speech.” Presumably someday we will – and then the same kind of miraculous biomimicry that Hugh Herr has used to build legs that allow him to walk again, can be used to allow locked in patients, who have lost all muscle use, to actual speak again, just by thinking.

In my book, I visited the lab of Gerwin Schalk, who is working on doing just that. Researchers have discovered that when we speak, our brain sends a copy of the intended words not just to the motor cortex to make the sounds needed to communicate, it sends what’s known as an “efference copy” to the auditory cortex, possibly as an error correction mechanism. This is true even when we simply imagine speaking them.

Schalk can already detect which of two sentences some of his volunteers are imagining speaking. But the resolution and accuracy—though greater than chance—is still not perfect. As computing power increases, so will accuracy.

The same goes for our ability to decode the human genome. Already the first gene therapies have entered the clinic. Most of the therapies in the pipeline, however, are focused on the small minority of diseases that are caused by single mutations. To truly have a transformative impact on medicine, we will need to be able to decode the interaction between hundreds, perhaps thousands of genes and environmental factors. That will require a lot of processing power. And a lot of research. But you can see where all this is going.

In my book I also explored the field of regenerative medicine. It’s amazing what researchers are learning. By hacking into the human body, changing the mix of molecular level signaling agents, or environmental factors, they are coaxing stem cells to regrow muscles that would normally be gone forever – even finger tips. But we’re still a long way from being able to regrow, for instance, an arm. People are trying though. I met some of them. And they convinced me it will one day be possible.

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