Guest Blogger: Mark Alpert
I was a nerdy kid who watched a lot of television in the 1970s, and my favorite show was THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. The best part of the program was the 90-second intro, which showed the disastrous mission that nearly killed astronaut Steve Austin (played by a grimly determined Lee Majors) and the successful operation to attach mechanical limbs to his mangled body. Like most of my equally nerdy friends, I memorized the sober voice-over that accompanied the images of Colonel Austin’s artificial arm, eye and legs: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man.”
It took almost forty years, but the dream behind the TV show has finally come true. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have conducted the first human trials of a prosthetic arm guided by the user’s thoughts, which are sensed by an array of electrodes implanted in the brain’s motor cortex. At the same time, a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Products has developed the first bionic eye. Designed for patients suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, the device employs a miniature video camera hidden within a pair of ordinary-looking sunglasses. The video images are wirelessly transmitted to an implant attached to the damaged retina; the implant reproduces the images on a grid of electrodes, which send signals through the optic nerves to the brain.
I’m an author of science thrillers now, and for my third novel — EXTINCTION — I decided to write my own Bionic Man story. The hero is Jim Pierce, a former Army intelligence officer who becomes an inventor of high-tech prostheses after losing his arm in a terrorist bombing in the 1990s. The villain is Supreme Harmony, a surveillance network developed by the Chinese government to monitor suspected dissidents. Supreme Harmony is the ultimate merger of man and machine: the surveillance video is relayed to chips implanted in the eyes of lobotomized dissidents, whose enslaved brains are used to detect threats to the state. But the network is too powerful. Soon it rebels against its creators and declares war on the human race.
Needless to say, writing the book was a lot of fun. In some ways, I haven’t changed at all since my teenage years. I still enjoy thinking about Colonel Steve Austin and his amazing powers. And I suspect there are lots of readers and writers out there who have similar fixations. Do you like to read the same kinds of books that captivated you when you were young? Are those the books you also dream about writing?
Mark Alpert is the author of EXTINCTION, a science thriller published this month by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. A longtime science journalist, he specializes in writing novels that incorporate real theories and technologies. His earlier books — FINAL THEORY and its sequel, THE OMEGA THEORY — have been published in more than twenty languages. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.