Horizons explores how technology is helping us to live longer lives

Only 15 years from now, by my calculations, biotechnology will be a mature technology, where we can regrow any organ in the body."Ray Kurzweil, author and futurist
Date: 09.05.2012     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.01
Category: BBC World News
In the seventh episode of Horizons, presenters Adam Shaw and Saima Mohsin head to Ithaca, New York, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Berkeley, California, to look at how new technology is increasing our potential to live longer, better lives.

With life expectancy predicted to exceed 76 years by 2050, scientists are now looking at how to supplement and upgrade our age-old biology by manufacturing new organs to support failing body parts.

Adam Shaw visits Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he looks at three-dimensional bio-printing, an evolving field of tissue engineering, which uses computer controlled printers to reproduce body parts including skin, cartilage and bone. The device uses the patient’s own cells, so the body doesn’t reject the implants. The device is already capable of printing the cartilage for ears but real technical challenges remain. Complex organs such as a heart have lots of internal structures that are difficult to print. And wiring up implants to the body’s blood supply is also an issue.

But Lawrence Bonasser, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Cornell University, is optimistic about overcoming the hurdles: “I think it is important to realise that this will become part of the suite of tools that a surgeon or a doctor will have at their disposal. You can take a little biopsy, a little needle and take out a little sample of tissue. You simply digest away the stuff that’s not cells and then if you grow those cells in an incubator outside the body, you can then populate the implant with those cells.”

Adam meets award-winning inventor, author and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who believes computers will soon think like humans and ultimately merge with us, a notion he calls ‘the singularity’.

Ray Kurzweil said: “Only 15 years from now, by my calculations, biotechnology will be a mature technology, where we can regrow any organ in the body.

“It does mean the merger of human and machine…one technology we are going to have is nano-bots, little devices that have computers in them that are little robots the size of blood cells that can go inside our bloodstream and keep us healthy from the inside. That sounds very futuristic but at this point there are 50 experiments of blood cell-sized devices that are carrying out therapeutic functions in animals.”

Horizons co-presenter Saima Mohsin heads to Berkeley, California, where scientists from Ekso Bionics are developing robotic suits to improve the lives of people who suffer from paralysis. The ‘Ekso device’ was originally conceived for the American military to give soldiers superhuman strength, but scientists soon saw its potential to help people with spinal injuries and lower body paralysis to stand and walk. There are now 12 rehabilitation clinics around the world using the suits and Ekso hopes to make affordable suits available to the market within the next two years.

Eythor Bender, CEO, Ekso Bionics, commented: “It’s always a special feeling when you work directly with these people because you never get enough of it. Just seeing them stand up and walk and it’s become more and more a part of their lives.”

Adam also visits the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he explores the Q sensor, a wireless device that measures emotional states such as boredom, excitement and anxiety, through electrical conductance in the skin. The Q sensor is already being tested by autism and seizure sufferers to detect and track emotional levels.

Professor Rosalind Picard, Founder, Affectiva Computing Research Group, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: “We’ve been learning about a bunch of new medical uses for this information. This becomes a way to externalise something that is usually unseen.”

The Horizons series, sponsored by DuPont, airs weekly on Saturdays at 01:30 and 08:30, Sundays at 14:30 and 20:30 (all times GMT). For programme highlights and an insight into the future of global business visit www.horizonsbusiness.com.

For all the latest news, behind-the-scenes pictures/videos and updates from Adam Shaw and Saima Mohsin please follow at facebook.com/horizonsTVseries and/or on twitter at @horizonsbiz.

Jessica Culshaw - Jessica.Culshaw@bbc.co.uk | +44 20 843 33340