THE NEW BIONIC MAN?
By Jean Thilmany
Prosthetic limbs historically have been seen as poor substitutes at
best for natural appendages. But the state of the art has far surpassed
the hooks and peg legs of old. Indeed, ethicists have recently debated
whether an amputee might have an actual advantage in an athletic event.
image of prosthetics has been undergoing such a radical transformation
that the cable channel Canadian Discovery Science promoted a program in
March with this pitch:
“Stuntman and amputee Casey Pieretti,
and inventor Bill Spracher, design, build and test one-of-a-kind,
extreme limbs that make their amputee clients better than new, better
The one-hour special, Bionic Builders,
purported to depict the deliberate blurring of man and machine. Its very
premise spotlights some of the questions raised by researchers—and by
the public—as scientists work toward ever more intuitive and more
powerful bionic limbs and other body parts.
One view is typified by New York Times
contributor Jack Hitt, who tackled the issue in his November 2009
article, “Are High-Tech Prostheses Fair?” In Hitt’s view, athletic
events like foot races ought to be open to disabled athletes with
lower-leg amputations who use high-tech prosthetics. Yes, today’s
prosthetics may have an advantage in contests against ordinary
competitors, Hitt wrote, but “the fact is that this piece of equipment
isn’t supernatural and doesn’t bestow any occult powers on those who
Hollywood stuntman Casey Pieretti swims at superhuman
speeds and leaps crazy heights with prosthetic limbs designed by
engineer Bill Spracher.
bionic versus non-bionic competitor question had its real-world case
study in the attempts of Oscar Pistorius to run at the 2008 Olympics in
Beijing. Pistorius has a double amputation and wears J-shaped blade
extensions on his legs. To disqualify Pistorius, the International
Association of Athletic Federations quickly amended its rules to
prohibit the use of any technical device that incorporates springs,
wheels, or any other element that provides the user with an advantage
over another athlete not using such a device.
In support of this
ruling, studies commissioned by the IAAF showed that Pistorius would
have, in fact, had an advantage against other sprinters. Later,
scientists claimed they found the IAAF-funded study flawed.
debate will doubtless continue into the future, as engineers push the
boundaries of prosthetic limb design and use. For a glimpse of that
future, meet Casey Pieretti, who lost his right leg when he was 19 years
old. He went on to participate in triathlons held for athletes with and
Along the way, he became a Hollywood stuntman. Pieretti was a stunt double in the 1997 film Starship Troopers, playing a character who had his leg gruesomely torn off.
career was aided through the years by Bill Spracher, owner of Spracher
Engineering Inc. of Santa Barbara, Calif. In addition to making
polyurethane parts for demanding industrial applications, the company
also designs special legs for Pieretti’s stunt work.
spoke earlier this year at SolidWorks World, the conference for users of
the CAD technology. There, they outlined how they work together.
Pieretti find stunt work on a movie in which he needs to explode or to
jump out of a dangerous situation, he talks to Spracher. Together they
will come up with a few designs. From there, Spracher creates a leg that
can explode or can catapult him off the ground.
At one point
Pieretti wanted to scuba dive and requested a special prosthetic
flipper. Spracher came up with a leg that could be used for both walking
and swimming. Pieretti then tried the leg and proposed enhancements,
resulting in a prosthetic propeller that enables him to move through
water faster than any non-amputee could hope to.
conference goers that he’s no longer disabled; he’s super-enabled.
He and Spracher have now have formed a specialized prosthetics company,
Amp’d Gear, through which they sell some of the specially designed
The Bionic Builders show followed the team
as they tried to turn a former U.S. Navy diver into a human torpedo and
give a one-handed martial arts instructor his very own bionic punching
As the blurb for the show stated, the Bionic Builders will
test, build, and design until disability is a word of the past. What
that show doesn’t address is the debate that will be inevitably raised
by the builders’ engineering successes: What exactly constitutes a human
disability in this brave new world of prosthetic design?