One of the first robots to appear in books was Tik-Tok. Tik-Tok was a clockwork robot that lived in the Land of Oz, a series of books including The Wizard of Oz. written by Frank L. Baum in 1900. Tik-Tok was not alive, could not feel emotions, and was included in the book solely to play the role of a faithful servant.
Now let's jump ahead 70 years. Middle-aged people all remember the original bionic man, Colonel Steve Austin. It was 1973 and a new TV show had aired – The Six Million Dollar Man. Steve Austin was a test pilot for NASA who survived a near-fatal crash. Dr Rudy Wells reconstructed him at a cost of $6,000,000. He was fitted with automatic-powered legs, arms, and a left eye, which allowed him to perform incredible feats of strength, speed, and vision.
Later in the TV series, the Six Million Dollar Man discovered that there was another bionic man out there, the Seven Million Dollar Man, who was causing trouble. The two battled, and Austin won. In 1975, the TV producers introduced a bionic woman, who later had a spin off series. Not only was there the bionic man and woman, a bionic child, dog, and Bigfoot were also toyed with in this popular TV series until it ended in 1978.
The Bionic Woman aired from 1975 until 1978. Jaime Sommers was a professional tennis player until she was critically injured in a parachuting accident. Saved with bionic surgery, Sommers became TV’s Bionic Woman. She was fitted with bionic legs, an arm, and an ear. The ideas emanating from these two TV shows, “making a person better, stronger and faster, by incorporating machinery into or outside his or her body" were certainly futuristic for their day.
University at Berkeley
Now jump ahead to today. The Berkeley Robotics Laboratory has invented BLEEX, the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton – a robotics system with legs that are attached to, and become one with, its users legs. A person carrying a large load wears the exoskeleton with the structure absorbing the weight making it easier for the person to carry these loads for long periods of time over any type of terrain. BLEEX has been designed to provide soldiers, disaster relief workers, firefighters, and emergency service workers with relief while carrying loads such as food, rescue equipment, first aid supplies, communications gear, and weaponry.
A control algorithm built into its onboard computer ensures that BLEEX moves in unison with the person with minimal interaction between the two. BLEEX differs from other robotic systems in two basic ways:
See pictures of BLEEX in use here (external link).
Rutgers University has invented Dextra, the first multi-finger artificial hand. It has been proven that when a limb or body part is amputated, the muscles and nerves at the point of the amputation still ‘remember’ the missing limb or body part. It still works as if it were still there. Dextra utilizes this same principle. The sensors lying next to the stump at the end of the arm send signals to a built-in computer and translate these signals into simple movements within the hand. A bionic wrist is also being developed at this point, for use by people who suffer from arthritis.
Also noteworthy is the bionic eye currently being developed by researchers at Stanford University. People who have lost their retinas through degenerative diseases are the intended recipient of this bionic eye. It works as follows: a tiny computer, a light-sensing chip, and a solar-powered battery are implanted into the eye. A tiny video camera is then mounted on to virtual-reality style infrared goggles. This bionic eye stimulates nerve cells in the eye to perceive images, just as the photoreceptors normally would in a fully functional eye.
Little did Frank L. Baum know, that nearly 100 years later, a bionic man would appear, that looks somewhat like a robot, helping people across the world lead more normal and productive lives. The producers of the Bionic TV series probably didn’t realize that 30 years down the road, their somewhat fictional bionic technology would become a reality because of the progress being made in the field of Artificial Intelligence. We can only guess at what advances the next 30 years will produce!