The man with the robotic arm

Written by Lukas Rüttimann
Photos by Stefan Jermann

November 25, 2019

Life without your right hand? Michael Fornasier from Switzerland was born this way. Thanks to his bionic hand prosthesis, he is not only able to master his everyday life – he has even become a superhero. In this interview, “Bionicman” tells us his story and why he sometimes misplaced his hand.

Bionicman Michel Fornasier in his suit

Today Michel Fornasier is out and about as his alter ego. Dressed in his shiny superhero outfit, the extroverted former investment banker plays Bionicman for his young fans in the Swiss town of Winterthur – a comic strip character he created to inspire children and teenagers with a disability. The second comic book featuring the adventures of the hero with the artificial hand has just been published. At the wind park, which offers what is known as indoor skydiving, the man with the robotic arm talks to media representatives from Switzerland and abroad. Due to the fine sequins adorning his costume, Michel himself is not able to whirl through the air today. Instead, he passionately tells his life story. How he suffered under his disability as a child, how he was able to overcome his shame thanks to high-tech – and how he is on a mission to “unhandicap” the world. To greet us, he stretches out his left hand.

The Bionicman encourages the little one

Michel Fornasier, you automatically extend your left hand. Why?

I simply like the human touch when I shake hands. With my right hand, handshakes are very robotic, very bionic. That is why I prefer to shake hands with my left, even though it sometimes catches people off guard.

Would you have to program your bionic hand in order to perform a handshake?

Yes. I have a number of different grip patterns that I can upload onto my hand using a smartphone. One of these is the handshake, which I can initiate through a double contraction of the muscles in my forearm. When I flex the muscles, the hand performs the corresponding grip.

What other functions can your bionic hand perform?

For example, I can activate a pincer motion, which is very handy for grabbing popcorn at the movie theater. (laughs) In addition, I have a gripping motion for the handlebar of my bike and another for typing on a keyboard.

Are the possibilities of your hand unlimited?

We have currently set the limit at 25 grips, as any more would not make sense for me. Theoretically, however, a great deal is possible. Already now, new grips are constantly being programmed or old ones replaced. I maintain close contact with a company in Sweden, which sends new grips for me to try out via my smartphone. This is fantastic for me, because I always appreciate new options for my bionic hand.

What are the technical limits of your hand? Is there anything that still doesn’t function as it should do?

The speed is one point where there is certainly room for improvement. Although my hand is certainly a state-of-the-art prosthesis, it sometimes annoys me when it doesn’t respond as quickly as I would like it to.  Also, my prosthesis can only perform 15 percent of the motions that a human hand is capable of. 

If you consider how many muscles it takes just to throw a ball, your appreciation of the miracle of the human being and human body increases tremendously.

15 percent today – what about tomorrow? How fast is the progress in the field of hand prostheses?

The past four years have seen tremendous progress. Before that, there was a period of stagnation, while at the same time, considerable advancements were made in other fields, such as leg prostheses. But then, new motors were developed. My hand is equipped with six such motors, two for the thumb and one for each of the fingers. This was the first time I was able to move each finger individually. That was a real quantum leap. If the progress continues, it will eventually be possible to use this hand to play Mozart on the piano. 

Your hand costs 55,000 euro. That’s a lot of money.

It certainly is. On the one hand, all the research that goes into the prostheses is also reflected in the price. On the other, it was important to me that my prosthesis has an aesthetic design. Many people associate hand prostheses with Captain Hook or shop-window mannequins. My hand proves that a prosthesis can look innovative and even cool. In the meantime, there are artificial hands that are manufactured using 3D printers. Particularly for children, this is a good way to get used to a prosthesis, especially since a great deal can be done in terms of colors and design. Recently, we designed a hand for a boy in “Hulk green”; this color was more important to him than any functions, which such a printed prosthesis does not have anyway.

Portrait of Michel Fornasier the Bionicman

You specifically wanted your own hand to be transparent? 

Correct. If I want to, I can always put on a skin-colored glove, but I wanted the intricate mechanics of my prosthesis to be visible. After all, a master watchmaker would never cover the tourbillon movement of an expensive watch. Since it is anyway obvious that the hand is artificial, I made a conscious decision in favor of transparency. I do not feel that I have to hide. And when people see someone wearing a prosthesis without unwarranted shame, it is much easier for them to feel at ease.

Let’s take a closer look at your bionic hand. What can we see?

On the index finger I wear a sleeve, which allows me to operate touch screens. Children always think it looks a bit like Spider-Man. And children were also what inspired me to create my Bionicman character. They always used to ask me if my hand had any superpowers and were disappointed when I said it doesn’t. This is why I came up with the idea of a superhero who wears a prosthesis.

How strong is your hand?

I really couldn’t say. But I certainly couldn't hurt anyone with it. I can give a firm handshake though. In winter, it would definitively be convenient if I could use it to crack nuts (laughs).

Tell us something about the technology inside the hand.

There are two electrodes attached to the stump of my arm. By contracting the muscles in my wrist, the flexors and extensors are stimulated, which then activate the two electrodes. 

This is how I open and close my hand. Since this alone would not really allow me to do much, I also have the option of programming grips via my smartphone, as I mentioned earlier. In addition, I have several “grip chips”, installed around my home, which contain additional grips.  These are automatically uploaded to my hand via Bluetooth as soon as I am nearby. For example, I installed a grip chip on my bike and one in the laundry room.

Have you ever misplaced your hand?

Actually, this has happened from time to time. My prosthesis weighs around 2.5 kilograms, and in summer it can also get quite hot inside the carbon socket. This is why I have been known to take my hand off on a warm day and leave it lying somewhere. Of course, this should never be allowed to happen to a piece of technology that, according to a friend of mine who is a design student, meets all the requirements to be exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art. (laughs)

You are technologically enhanced. What do you think about cyborgs?

This topic always entails an ethical and moral dimension. While imagining where progress will take us is fascinating, it is also frightening. Personally, I have no doubt that technology can help people with disabilities to improve their quality of life. But it would be questionable for us to go so far as to replace body parts on a healthy human being simply to allow them to function better. This has a great deal to do with respect for the human body. In any case, I am glad that we are still in the driver's seat and that it is not the technology that dictates what we should do.

The Briton Neil Harbisson had an antenna embedded in his head and is officially recognized by his government as a cyborg (cybernetic organism). Do you also consider yourself a human machine?

No, because unlike Neil Harbisson, I do not have any implants. I wear an external robotics device, which does, of course, attract a great deal of public attention. But this by no means makes me a cyborg. In principle, I support the coexistence of man and machine; as long as the robots help people. But I can understand that many people feel threatened by this development.

The Bionicman, your comic book character, is intended to help reduce prejudice. What exactly is this character about?

What makes Bionicman special is that, unlike other superheroes, he does not draw his strength from an advantage, but from a weakness: his missing hand.

He shows that a missing limb does not necessarily have to be a handicap. Every weakness can be transformed into a strength – this is the message of Bionicman: A message that is naturally particularly valuable for children in similar situations. This idea is not about me seeking the spotlight, but about “unhandicapping” people, as I call it. This is a wonderful quest, and fortunately it is attracting more and more interest.

What kind of adventures does Bionicman experience in his comic books?

All the Bionicman stories have an autobiographical origin. Obviously, the stories are embellished with superhero elements. All the other characters that appear in the comic books also exist in real life. My goal is to unhandicap the world. It’s about raising people’s awareness and building a bridge between people with disabilities and “normal” people – and about boosting the self-esteem and hope of children and teenagers with disadvantages of any kind.

Bionicman recently found a new partner…

...exactly; Bionicman certainly does not want to be at the back of the queue when it comes to the struggle for gender equality and has joined forces with a female counterpart. After all, girls also need a role model of their own, which is why my colleague Romina, who was born without her left hand, is now playing the character of Bionica. Naturally, she will also appear as such in the comic books. The idea behind it is this: Ultimately, there will be a veritable “Justice League” of superheroes with different disabilities, which will enable wider-ranging identification.

Which new function for your hand are you particularly looking forward to?

I welcome every new function. It looks like I will soon be able to fully rotate my wrist around 360 degrees. This is not only a very practical skill for day-to-day activities – it will also be a party trick that will be virtually impossible to outdo.


A close-up of the bionic hand prosthesis


I love people, and I love technology. My fascination is awakened when each inspires the other. Then I grasp my analog notepad– and try to capture the whole story. Still analog, because for me, certain things will always remain a handicraft.
Taught to drive by my grandfather at the age of eight. Hurtling down every set of steps on my BMX by the age of ten; racing down every black diamond slope on my snowboard when I was fourteen. I am fascinated by people who have a story, and I want to tell it. My prime focus is on the relationship between human and machine, artificial intelligence, and finding inner peace in a world full of noise.

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