Weird Science: Brain/Machine Interface–Can Ironman Be Far Behind?

From the military’s powered exoskeletons to prosthetic devices for sufferers of locked-in syndrome, you just know brain-to-machine technology is coming. Fans of Ironman wait impatiently. According to a 2008 Wired article, though, it may be a while yet. Back then James Kakalios, physics professor/comics fan, said, “Sadly, nearly all of the features of the Iron Man suit, with one important exception, are not likely to be realized anytime soon.”

But a lot can happen in three years in the world of technology. In July of last year, E. Paul Zehr, professor of kinesiology (study of human movement) and neuroscience (study of the nervous system), spoke on the subject at Comic-con. He believes we may actually be getting close to building Iron Man since we already have mind-prosthetic technology. He admits the tech is limited by the time lag it takes to transfer the signal from brain to artificial limb. He also admits the battery power required for a suit to work would be the size of a room. But computers have shrunk in size without losing computing power and so Zehr predicts battery size will shrink in the same way.

I’m not sure why we need Iron Man suits. As per the rules for science fiction movies, no matter what powerful anti-dark side artillery you have, the bad guy will have something that is bigger and badder. In the end you can only win by outsmarting your enemy. But what do I know?

On the more practical side, brain-powered prosthetics and wearable robots could help people with spinal injuries achieve a relatively normal life. Day to day functioning could be restored by hooking an artificial limb directly to the brain. Whether or not it takes an Iron Man suit to do that, only time will tell. I imagine the full body prosthetic would be helpful as long as it didn’t restrict movement. If it was skin tight, rather than football uniform bulky, it could catch on.

Full body armor would, of course, be an advantage for a soldier. Again, though, it seems so cumbersome, even with on-board hydraulics ensuring the human doesn’t bear the weight. Seems like range of motion would be severely impaired. Maybe remote control would be the way to go, using brain waves (see image above). By the time all this is worked out, the suit will amount to the same thing as a robot. And of course the other side will have its robots. So what we’re talking about is robot warfare. How effective will that be in human affairs? So what if a few robots get blasted? To have an effect, you have to kill humans that are killable, i.e. without armor. Civilians.

Maybe that’s what warfare is actually all about. Maybe it’s not about guys with guns killing other guys with guns. Maybe it’s just about genocide.

Thanks for reading.

Sue Lange

Sue Lange’s latest ebook, Tritcheon Hash, is full of lapses of logic and weird science. “It’s a wild, good read.” Get your copy right here at good ol’ Book View Cafe.

This essay was first posted on December 12, 2011 at the Singularity Watch blog.

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Weird Science: Brain/Machine Interface–Can Ironman Be Far Behind? — 1 Comment

  1. I wouldn’t hold your breath on those batteries. Moore’s law depends on using less energy with each iteration — less space, material, and such follows from that. For batteries, you’re trying to cram more and more energy into a given small space — your issues become control and stability. (Remember when one generation of laptop batteries were exploding or bursting into flame at inopportune moments?)

    It’s one thing if your super-battery is part of a controlled installation such as a power plant. Consumer environments offer a lot more ways to release way-too-much energy (from a pack of 9-volts: “Do not install backwards, charge, or put in fire… do not carry or store unpackaged…”). War situations also feature enemies who would love your equipment (or mecha-soldiers) to blow up, preferably in your own camp — and will be creative about arranging that.