Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Review of "How to Build a Bionic Man"

This was a Channel 4 documentary on a week or two ago (I believe it's still viewable for those based in the U.K.) - I wasn't going to write a review of it at first. But then today, I noticed that there was a review of it on  the IEEE Robotics and Automation blog.

My first opinions of the documentary were unrelentingly poor. As a programme as a whole, I thought it was awful (the mostly inane voice-over commentary didn't help) - the thread that supposedly holds this together is the goal "...to create the worlds first bionic man, that can get off the slab and walk among us" (approx 1:10 minutes in). In terms of robotics it was dire: misleading, decidedly not state of the art, and poorly executed (as is typical for programmes such as this, it both over and understates the current state-of-the-art in robotics). As for 'building a bionic man', it was rather pathetic, an excuse to get in the dodgy sci-fi to make it more 'popular', and ending up with sensationalist nonsense. I can well imagine a director throughout in the background shouting "ham it up for the camera!" rather a lot...

However, the positive I did draw out of it (and this is what the IEEE blog post reminded me of) was that as a commentary on synthetic body parts, there is much of interest. The overview of the technologies both available and under development for the replacement of a whole host of limbs (in the news again recently) and internal organs was genuinely interesting, and quite well done. I thought the synthetic heart was particularly striking for instance.

The role of Bertolt Meyer was to add the personal touch to the tech-talk. For this, apart from the seemingly over-egged reaction to seeing a copy of his face on the resulting machine and the bit where he is pretending to talk to a plastic skull (though for all I know these were genuine reactions...), he was an ideal foil, being the user (possibly not the right phrase here) of a prosthetic hand himself. The snippets of interviews with the developers of the respective protheses were informative and realistic (i.e. didn't seem to be creatively edited in a way that detracted from the real technological advances made by focusing on the trivial or controversial).

It's a shame that the programme seems so poorly executed (and it is the programme I have a problem with), as there's lots of really great stuff that's been put together that doesn't, in my view, get the credit and clarity it deserves. And I can't imagine that the guys at Shadow Robot are particularly enamored at being portrayed as the stereotypical mad scientist loons confined to a basement, as they do genuinely great work (their hand is really quite impressive, and being used in a number of research endeavors around the world).

Sorry for somewhat rant-ish nature of that - I was possibly a little harsh in places, but as may be apparent, I don't think much of this documentary. I think that it mixes concepts from robotics, artificial intelligence and prosthetics research in a way that actually detracts from each, and is done from the perspective of entertainment under the guise of being informative.

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