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Outside the Lines

The Athlete of the 21st Century

Science to give the human body a makeover

Genetics: Finding the right stuff

Rehab: Knees made easy

Bionics: Calling Steve Austin

Next 100 years: The future is in your hands


Audio chat wrap: Princeton geneticist Lee Silver and Oakland A's strength coach Bob Alejo

Chat wrap: Gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi


Scott Sabolich says society is getting closer to creating someone like the Six Million Dollar Man.
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Sabolich says the total joining of man and machine will happen in his daughter's lifetime.
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This five-day online series is a companion to the ESPN Outside the Lines television special that originally aired Jan. 14.

Tuesday, June 3
"We can rebuild him ..."

We have seen the future of sports, and his name is Steve Austin.

No, not that Steve Austin, the Stone Cold variety. We're talking the original, authentic Col. Steve Austin -- the one we can rebuild, make him better than he was before. Perhaps you remember.

The guy who can jump over several cars at one time (listen).

Who can see fear in a terrorist's eyes from a 100 yards (listen).

Whose friend Jamie can eavesdrop like no other (listen).

Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus played on the Seniors Tour last year with an artificial hip.
Later this century, machine and man could come together to create human beings with characteristics similar to -- and in some ways even better than -- those spawned from the imagination of the all-powerful Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man. So says Scott Sabolich, who talked with Outside the Lines' Dave Lubbers about how far the science of bionics has come since 1974, when the popular science-fiction show debuted.

Sabolich, director of the Scott Sabolich Prosthetic and Research Center in Oklahoma City, Okla., works with patients who need advanced prosthetics. Among his clients is Kenny Wooden, a local man who appears to have normal arms but is in fact controlling his hand movements through a device that reads the nerve endings in his truncated arms.

Q: So, is The Six Million Dollar Man still fiction?

Sabolich: I kind of equate it to Star Trek. We saw everybody on the Starship Enterprise, and they were flying through space, and back then we thought, 'Oh, that'll never totally happen.' But my child just watched the space shuttle lift off the other day, and I was like, 'You see, honey, people can go up into space just like the old movies that we used to watch.' So why would it be any different with The Six Million Dollar Man, thinking 'Oh, that'll never be possible'?" We're halfway there right now.

Q: Right now, how much of the human body could be replaced with bionic parts?

Sabolich: Around half the human body could be physically, totally replaced with acceptable average of use.

Q: Who is Kenny?

Sabolich: Kenny is half human, half bionic.

Q: How does Kenny's arm work?

Sabolich: When Kenny wants to open his hand, for example, the brain sends an electrical impulse to the flexors or extensors of his wrist. He works the extensors of his wrist telling his hand to open. Now whether he has a hand there or not is irrelevant. Muscles still fire. We pick up those muscles by surface-mounted electrodes inside the prosthesis; they're laying against his skin. Those electrodes pick up micro volts, and once it reaches a certain set micro volt (level) it will then open the hand.

Q: How close are we to being able to improve a healthy athlete's performance with bionic technology?

Sabolich: This is the big, great debate -- when a person can enter the National Football League and say, 'OK, now that I'm going pro I think I'm going to go and get a new set of knees, maybe some new hip joint on my right side because it's kind of weak, and I might get some plastic vertebrae installed.' I don't know. No one really knows for sure. A good guess is within the next 50 to 75 years we'll definitely see that, absolutely definitely see that.

Q: Is it heading toward the point where artificial body parts will be better than the original?

Sabolich: The design at this point is to make things better. Obviously we're trying to look at what can we do to the human body to make it better, faster, stronger, quicker, more agile, and I think we're on the frontier of that right now. We're definitely looking at all sorts of procedures that are going through government testing right now.

Q: What's the next step?

Sabolich: We're getting closer and closer to matching (artificial body parts) to the brain. As soon as we start implanting things into (the body of) Kenny to control the prosthesis, that's when we get from bionics into cybernetics.


Prosthetics: Devices that attach to the body externally that allow a person to go through the activities of daily life.

Bionics: Artificial body parts that are run by an external power source, such as a battery.

Cybernetics: Bionic devices that are implanted inside the body, including the brain.

Q: Do you think it's possible?

Sabolich: Absolutely I think it's possible. Who's to say that we'll never implant an electronic memory card into your brain for higher memory? Who's to say we'll never be able to implant carbon-fiber titanium sleeves into the center bone to strengthen them and allow you to take more impact. Who's to say we'll never be able to replace joints with titanium that will never break and tendons made of plastic that would never snap. This is going to happen within the next 100 years.

Q: What about a rookie NFL quarterback coming in on the first day and, say, getting the playbook downloaded into a cybernetic device in his brain?

Sabolich: Everything's possible with cybernetics. Right now, you can get a total knee replacement, a total hip replacement. You can replace your heart. You can replace several vital organs. They're doing incredibly intense brain surgery right now. So really, anything is possible. I definitely think bringing computers into the neuro-network is on the frontier.

... I think within my daughter's lifetime she will see man and machine completely welded together. We will see a human being created in the lab, part memory chip, part not memory chip, part mechanical with replaceable memory cards in their brain, mechanical joints, things that we just thought were completely impossible when we were kids and now are definitely coming to light.

I think within my daughter's lifetime she will see man and machine completely welded together.
Scott Sabolich

Q: If you are alive when this happens, would you agree to replace or enhance an athlete's natural healthy body part with a bionic equivalent?

Sabolich: If a person came to us and said 'I would like a new leg, a new knee and foot combination because I'm a long jumper and I want to go to the Olympics in the year 2015, and I want to outdo everybody?' If it's really on their mind, I don't see an ethical problem with it, (because) it's what they want to do with their body. We have no right to tell someone they should or should not do something to their own body. Definitely, there's ethical issues involved, but I think that's up to the person to make that decision.

Q: OK, so look into the crystal ball and tell me how bionics is going to impact sports down the road.

Sabolich: While this is all just absolutely a guess, it's really not that far off. If we could implant, let's say, a muscle enhancer for a kicker, and we could go and rebuild the quadriceps muscles and look at the design there and implant electric devices in there that would stimulate the muscles -- release adrenalin using chemicals and electricity that would increase the kicker's ability by, let's say, 20 percent -- how impressive would that be? How many football teams would love to get ahold of that device and implant it to every one of their kickers?

How many Major League Baseball teams (would be interested) if we could find out how to increase the speed of a baseball thrown from a pitcher by just five percent? Every single team would be chomping at the bit, asking how can we improve our players and give them this extra edge. And then you have the sporting divisions coming in and saying, 'OK, at this point we're going to have to start setting rules, because these people are over-computing and (beating) the people that are normal able-bodied people.'

But I'd say that's probably another 30, 50 years out there.

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