Beginning on February 7, visitors to London's Science Museum will see a strange, stirring sight: A humanoid replica built from the world's finest prosthetics and artificial organs. The bionic man can see, speak, and interact with visitors using artificial intelligence.
The million-dollar bionic man is, himself, a museum within the museum. But he's no mere curiosity. He's a walking, talking, fake blood-pumping gallery of medical advancements coming to—or already actually inside—a warm human body near you.
Rex was created for a coproduction by British television station Channel 4 and the Smithsonian called How To Build A Bionic Man. The original title, however, might be more appropriate: Frankenstein: Building The Bionic Human.
Rex's component cost approximately $1 million to purchase and How To Build A Bionic Man is designed to showcase medical technology innovation. The parts used to build the robot come from a wide variety of sources at various stages of legal approval; some are available on the mass market while other artificial organs are only early prototypes. Channel 4, the Smithsonian and production house Darlow Smithson built Rex with the assistance of the Shadow Robot Company, a British firm specializing in anthropomorphic robotic hands. Shadow Robot is no stranger to television—the company recently created a robotic version of cult television personality Stephen Fry. Rex's components cost approximately $1 million and are taken from the cutting edge of medical tech research. The robot can walk unassisted as well.
Television viewers will see the story of Rex's artificial parts filtered through the experiences of Swiss research psychologist Bertolt Meyer. Meyer, the program's host, was born without a left hand and uses a high-tech, electronic prosthetic hand by Touch Bionics. To give the program the right amount uncanny valley quality, the Bionic Man's creators gave Rex a replica of Meyer's face made out of silicone. The robot's face resembles Meyer, but with a strange blank quality.
Unlike conventional prosthetics operated by body strength, Meyer's hand is controlled through myoelectric signals generated by his arm muscles. An array of sensors transform these myoelectric signals into hand movements, with users able to deploy a set of pre-programmed grips and typing stances at will besides more traditional movements. Meyer's particular model of choice, Touch Bionics' i-Limb, is also Bluetooth compatible—users can use Bluetooth to tweak calibration and movement settings from a nearby computer or smartphone. As Gizmodo's Brian Barrett put it, it's a prosthetic hand "with a bionic kung-fu grip, courtesy of Bluetooth." The iLimb, incidentally, was named one of Fast Company's 8 Prosthetic Devices To Watch Out For in 2010.
Rex makes use of similarly advanced prosthetic i-Limbs, but that's not all. The robot's arms have 26 degrees of movement—one less than a human—and are self-teaching. Rex's legs are similarly advanced, and use a motor-and-spring system to mimic the motion of the human calf muscle and Achilles tendon. It even wears glasses, which send optical signals to an artificial retina that sends signals to the robot's CPU "brain." These signals are then used in conjunction with a cochlear implant, a chatbot artificial intelligence system and a Stephen Hawking-style voice synthesizer to interact with museum visitors.
One of the most amazing aspects of Rex is the robot's legs. Rex uses a modified version of an exoskeleton created by New Zealand's Rex Bionics that literally lets the disabled walk. The Rex exoskeleton is a pair of robot legs that a user climbs into that then allow them to walk without the aid of a cane, walker, or wheelchair.
Rex's robotic legs are attached to iWalk Biom mechanical feet, produced in Massachusetts by a spinoff of the MIT Media Lab. Creator Hugh Kerr was featured in Fast Company in 2010 for building superhuman prosthetics. After losing his legs below the knee in a climbing accident when 17, Kerr successfully set off to build robotic parts better than the original ones humans come equipped with. "It's actually unfair […] As tech advancements in prosthetics come along, amputees can exploit those improvements. They can get upgrades. A person with a natural body can't," Herr said.
"I think that the bionic body is both scary and impressive at the same time. Impressive because it showcases the advances in many fields of technology—prostheses, bionics, biotechnology, engineering, nano science—in a very comprehensive way," Meyer told Fast Company. He added that "it looks like something from a dystopian future; it conveys more of a sense of Aliens than Star Trek. I personally find the silicone replica of my face most awkward. It looks almost real, but the fact that it is just slightly off makes it very disturbing. To that regard, I take comfort in the fact that the bionic body also shows how far away we still are from real bionic beings: it is very limited, for example, it walks really really slowly."
Channel 4's robot also mimics internal human functions just as much as the external: Rex pumps its artificial blood with an artificial heart designed for use by patients awaiting heart transplants, as well as a bionic spleen, kidney and artificial pancreas. The firm that manufactured Rex's heart, SynCardia, was named one of Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies of 2011 for their Total Artificial Heart.
Channel 4 intentionally designed Rex with artificial organs inside its body. The robot's internal organs highlight the fruits of years of research into biomimicry—research (and impressive mechanical replacements for internal body parts) that still hasn't been approved domestically by the Food and Drug Administration. Rex's kidney was developed at the University of California San Francisco by microelectromechanical researcher Shuvo Roy. The artificial kidney, which is expected to begin clinical trials in 2017, is built with a silicon nanoscale filtration system powered by blood pressure inside the human body. Roy's artificial kidney replicates the filtering functions of the human kidney through a filter that uses living renal cells harvested from the patient.
The developer of Rex's retinal implants, Oxford University's Robert MacLaren, intends for the artificial retinas to give blind patients the ability to see. "It is in a way the stuff of science fiction […] We are hoping patients who are completely blind will be able to see basic shapes and objects, to be able to navigate around. And of course for them to be able to see just something is a tremendous advance," MacLaren said in a statement.
Rex will go on display at the London Science Museum on February 7 and is coming to the United States this summer.
Correct: An earlier version of this article misspelled Dr. Shuvo Roy's name and referred to Rex Bionics as "Rex Robotics." Fast Company regrets the error.