Between Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim and Elysium, there’s been an emerging trend of sci-fi movies exploring the potential for linking the human mind and machines. In Pacific Rim humans shared a sort of brain bond to properly handle the neural load required to manipulate massive Jaegers; this also gives them access to each others’ memories and thoughts. In Elysium, the hero played by Matt Damon is supped up with a robotic outer suit making him essentially a cyborg. Having seen both films, I wondered how close we were these kind of scientific breakthroughs, so I turned to my childhood friend and cousin Jim Salvia, who went from being a brainy kid to an electrical engineer who while getting his PhD at Stanford worked on the technology that now allows quadriplegics to operate computers with their brains.
Having had what he describes as “some exposure to brain-machine interfaces,” he seemed the perfect person to ask about the science of these science-fiction movies. Though he hasn’t seen each film in full, he watched over their trailers and gave me a rundown on the man/machine tech as he saw it.
First off, Pacific Rim, which has Jaegers active in 2025, is almost pure fiction. Salvia told me, “Sure, we know what regions of the brain contribute to things like impulse control, positional awareness, task planning, etc. We know what chemicals are involved and what processes are important. A neurosurgeon could make a few targeted cuts and remove your ability to speak or to form long-term memories, for example, while leaving the rest of your mental faculties largely unchanged. But the inner workings of the system are so ridiculously complex that we haven't even scratched the surface. We are, in my opinion, centuries away from having anything like the technology in Pacific Rim that allows people to share thoughts and memories.”
Basically, things like thoughts, memories, emotions, and consciousness are still beyond science’s grasp. However, the tech of Elysium’s cyborg is far more attainable, as it essentially would require much less of the brain-bot bond. In the movie, Damon is struck low by radiation poisoning, and given five days to live. To make the best out of this time and enable a run at Elysium that holds the key to his cure, he allows an interplanetary coyote to hook him up to a third generation exoskeleton that locks into his brain. “It's one thing to interpret signals from the brain that are used to drive muscles,” Salvia offered, “After all, muscles take pretty simple commands: contract, relax.” In fact, he believes we could see this kind of technology within 50 to 100 years. Meaning, Elysium, which is set in 2154, is dead on in this particular element of its science fiction.
Below is trailer I sent Salvia to make his analysis:
“The brief glimpse that I got of Matt Damon's cyborg features from the trailer suggests a device that is sensing his motion or intended motion and then augmenting his speed and strength by moving in unison with his arms and legs. It's conceptually simple.” Salvia deduced, “In fact, the common term for this type of system is ‘exoskeleton suit,’ and they are already being developed by the department of defense.” That reflects what the filmmakers say in the newly unveiled featurette below, though they call theirs a “Hulk suit.”