Bionic manhood? No thanks!

You don’t think Canadians are fascinating? Check this guy out. There he stands, dressed only in his skivvies, slathering his body with Vaseline. That’s so he can slide into his most prized possession: the Ursus Mark VII, he calls it. It’s an armoured bodysuit that makes the wearer look like the Michelin Man. Ursus Mark VII is composed of shark-proof chain mesh, reinforced steel plates and extremely high-impact plastic. It contains an air-conditioning unit, protective air bags and robotic arms, not to mention a built-in computer and a video screen. The guy in his underwear – his name is Troy Hurtubise; he’s from North Bay, Ont. – hopes the suit is rugged enough to withstand an attack from an enraged grizzly. His hope is especially fervent because he expects to be inside the suit when the grizzly attacks.

Hurtubise claims he has spent over 1,600 hours and $200,000 of his own money on this Robocop-style anti-bear suit. Does this make him a certifiable nutbar? Not necessarily. Chances are Hurtubise is a man ahead of his time.

Consider what is going on at Tsukuba University near Tokyo. Scientists there are working on something that could put you, me and your gre-uncle Virgil in the backfield of the Hamilton Tiger Cats next season.

It’s a motorized body frame called Hybrid Assistive Limb 3, and it fits over the human carcass – yours, mine, Uncle Virgil’s – like a scaled-down version of the Ursus Mark VII. This exoskeleton receives electronic signals from sensors attached to the wearer’s skin. When your brain says, “Left knee, bend!” a microprocessor in the body frame transmits the thought as an electrical impulse to miniature motors located at the left knee joint and, lo, your left knee bends.

And not only knees but hips and ankles, elbows, wrists and pinkie fingers. And not just simple bending but flexing, torquing, springing and clenching – at superhuman strength levels. Doesn’t matter if the actual human joint is arthritic, rheumatic, sclerotic or flapping like a batwing saloon door. The exoskeleton does all the work and provides all the power. Hybrid Assistive Limb 3 has the potential to turn an 80-pound anorexic into Silken Laumann, Preston Manning into the Incredible Hulk.

Note the word “potential.” Hybrid Assistive Limb 3 isn’t there yet. Even though the Japanese boffins have spent more than 100 million yen on the project so far, their prototype still weighs in at close to 40 pounds, which is a lot more than most of us would be comfortable hauling around. But they’re working on it. The head researcher, Dr. Yoshiyuki Sankai, says his ultimate aim is to make a “suit” thin and comfortable enough for anyone to wear.

The ramifications are stupendous. Couch potatoes like you and me could be Olympic contenders. Brittle octogenarians could dance like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. We could take the stairs up the CN Tower two at a time. The lion would lie down with the retrofitted lamb, and the lamb would whup Leo at arm-wrestling in three seconds flat.

The only question remaining is do we really want this? The famous Riddle of the Sphinx in Greek mythology went: What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening? The answer, as clever Oedipus divined, was man himself. A man crawls in childhood, stands erect at maturity and typically hobbles off to his reward clutching his third leg – a cane.

Humankind has been following that biological arc pretty consistently since our forebears first wriggled out of the primordial ooze a couple of million years ago. It feels right and it works well. As a chap on the cusp of the three-legged stage, I am thoroughly enjoying the gentle, contemplative sunset phase of my scramble through life. Being young was exciting, but it was never comfortable like this is. I’m enjoying the sunsets. Honing my hammock technique. Smelling the proverbial roses. I don’t want to be rigged out in a bionic exoskeleton chasing tennis balls when I’m 93.

Or baseballs. Somebody once asked Joe Dimaggio how he knew when it was time to hang up his cleats. “I was standing at the plate,” said Joe. “The pitcher threw the ball and my brain said ‘Swing!’ And my body said, ‘Who, me?'”

Good enough for the Yankee Clipper. Good enough for me.