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.”
Of course, we’re not there yet. But what does Salvia think will take us 50 to 100 years to nail down? He was good enough to break it down: “A system like this needs a few key technologies: 1] an ability to sense signals from Matt's body (from his nervous system or perhaps his skeletal muscles) 2] environmental sensors (to detect things like acceleration, position, strain, rotation, etc.) 3] a lot of computational power to interpret those signals 4] motors and actuators to drive the limbs and 5] a high-density energy source to power items 1]-4]. Of these 5 items, the first one and the last one would likely be the hardest to develop.”
“Sensing Matt's intended motion can happen in a variety of ways,” Salvia says. “Researchers have shown that they can read motion-related instructions directly from a person's brain using electrodes surgically inserted under the skull. However, the data rate and accuracy from such a system is very poor. For example, if you wanted to drive a robotic finger with your thoughts and have it type a message for you on a keyboard, you would be hard pressed to type a word per minute, and that word would probably have a lot of typos.” This is a key area that separates Damon’s “Hulk suit” from what we have available today. But Salvia also pointed out that today’s suits require extensive physical therapy. For example, if Damon’s character would need years of practice before he could run and jump as he does in the trailer. But there are other potential methods for the brain to communicate with the exoskeleton.
“Other options would be to sense the signals going to Matt's muscles either at the spine or closer to the muscles themselves. While I have heard of research along these lines as well, I'm less familiar with the pros/cons of the approach,” Salvia allows. “Finally the system could directly sense the contractions of Matt's muscles and then act to augment his strength. I'm not familiar at all with technology like this, but with hundreds of implanted strain sensors it would be theoretically possible.”
He goes on: “Environmental sensors for acceleration, rotation, etc. already exist and are definitely not the limiting technology. The required computational power isn't trivial (you'd probably need something akin to today's supercomputer), but at the rate that the industry is improving we should be there in a few decades. Also, actuator technology probably wouldn't be a limiting factor assuming that you have sufficient energy to drive them. Which brings us to the question of a power source.”
The power source is where an effective exoskeleton suit demands major technological advancements. In the film, the hulk suit’s battery life is never brought up. But in real life, Salvia declares, “We would need a huge breakthrough in battery technology to be able to store and deliver the kind of power necessary to move Matt's arms and legs with enough strength and speed to justify his cyborg addition. Unfortunately, battery technology is advancing very slowly. Right now the highest density energy sources that we have are chemical fuels like gasoline. Converting those fuels into useful electrical or mechanical energy requires an engine--something usually not known for its feather-like weight (not to mention heat, noise, etc.), so it would be really inconvenient to carry around on one's back. Other options like fuel cells have their own limitations, but maybe they'll get there some day.”
To see where we are with exoskeleton technology, Salvia offered this video which uses Iron Man 3 as a jumping off point to discuss exoskeleton suits.
Elysium opens everywhere this weekend.