Human today, superhuman tomorrow

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

bionic ear creators
Graduate student Manu Mannoor and Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Michael McAlpine examine the bionic ear created in their lab.

I know researchers say that robots have a long way to go before they can be as smart as humans. Still, it would be great to have some of the toughness, quick reflexes, and math calculations that these machines can pull off! Bionics – the science of modeling systems and machines after nature and living organisms – has been on the rise over the years, leading to incredible advances in merging our body with tech, like smart contact lenses that give you zoom vision or the “hippocampus chip”  that improves memory. Wouldn’t hurt to have a couple of bionic body parts here and there, huh? Well, Princeton University researchers have heard our call!

Modern developments in 3D printing have made a huge difference for patients in hospitals, since missing body parts can be printed out by machines! However, Michael McAlpine from Princeton doesn’t think you should have to be sick in order to reap the benefits of 3D printing. Why wait around for a body part to fail? So, he invented a device that just might see humans wielding some robotic abilities.

Usually, body parts and electronics don’t mix well. For the most part, our bodies are squishy and even jiggly in certain places, while gadgets are tough and sturdy. The 3D printer, though, can take care of that problem. “It’s a way you can naturally intertwine everything together into a three-dimensional format,” said McAlpine.

Princeton’s work centered on developing a bionic ear. How can they create a super ear? First, they wrapped an electrode in human cells, plastic, and tiny particles of silver (to conduct electricity). Then, they carefully layered living cells, gooey gel, and a rubber-like material called silicone into the shape of an ear. The final product? A bionic body part that hears a wider range than normal humans. According to the researchers, a person with the bionic ear can hear frequencies a million times higher than usual!

McAlpine says perhaps future ear models will feature “piezoelectric” materials, which means they can change mechanical energy into electric energy. This could give humans the ability to sense electricity and magnets in the air, almost like a sixth sense! While the researchers did say the ear can enhance hearing in healthy people, the technique they used is great for creating a wide range of medical products for sick people.

Images courtesy of Princeton University and Frank Wojciechowski.