'Bionic man' makes debut at Washington's Air and Space Museum

WASHINGTON Fri Oct 18, 2013 2:11am IST

Dr. Bertholt Meyer (R) and James Pope assist the robot ''The Incredible Bionic Man'' while it walks at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington October 17, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Dr. Bertholt Meyer (R) and James Pope assist the robot ''The Incredible Bionic Man'' while it walks at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington October 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A first-ever walking, talking "bionic man" built entirely out of synthetic body parts made his Washington debut on Thursday.

The robot with a human face unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum was built by London's Shadow Robot Co to showcase medical breakthroughs in bionic body parts and artificial organs.

"This is not a gimmick. This is a real science development," museum director John Dailey said.

The 6-foot-tall (1.83 meter), 170-pound (77-kg) robot is the subject of a one-hour Smithsonian Channel documentary, "The Incredible Bionic Man," airing on Sunday.

A "bionic man" was the material of science fiction in the 1970s when the television show "The Six Million Dollar Man" showed the adventures of a character named Steve Austin, a former astronaut whose body was rebuilt using synthetic parts after he nearly died.

The robot on display at the museum cost $1 million and was made from 28 artificial body parts on loan from biomedical innovators. They include a pancreas, lungs, spleen and circulatory system, with most of the parts early prototypes.

"The whole idea of the project is to get together all of the spare parts that already exist for the human body today - one piece. If you did that, what would it look like?" said Bertolt Meyer, a social psychologist from the University of Zurich in Switzerland and host of the documentary.

The robot was modeled after Meyer, who was born without a hand and relies on an artificial limb. He showed off the bionic man by having it take a few clumsy steps and by running artificial blood through its see-through circulatory system.

"It, kind of, looks lifelike. Kind of creepy," said Paul Arcand, a tourist who was visiting from Boston with his wife.

The robot has a motionless face and virtually no skin. It was controlled remotely from a computer, and Bluetooth wireless connections were used to operate its limbs.

The bionic creation's artificial intelligence is limited to a chatbot computer program, similar to the Siri application on the Apple iPhone, said Robert Warburton, a design engineer for Shadow Robot.

"The people who made it decided to program it with the personality of a 13-year-old boy from the Ukraine," he said. "So, he's not really the most polite of people to have a conversation with."

Assembly began in August 2012 and took three months to finish.

The robot made its U.S. debut last week at New York's Comic Con convention. It will be on display at the museum throughout the fall.

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson; editing by Barbara Goldberg and Leslie Adler)

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