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In the world of 2154 the divide between rich and poor has been actualized in space—literally. In the ultimate gated community the wealthy and powerful shelter on a ring-world space station dubbed Elysium, enjoying the best in health care, among other perks, as everyone else suffers below on the overpopulated and environmentally trashed Earth. Protecting that privilege requires sometimes superhuman abilities—hence the use of special exoskeleton strength suits that enhance fight or flight.
Such is the world of Elysium in the new film by Neill Blomkamp, whose last sci-fi jaunt, District 9, featured aliens stranded and sequestered in South Africa. For this film opening on August 9, the director dreamed up a lush life built in space against the challenges of gravity for construction and permanent habitation as well as the exoskeletons, although there is little indication of how such strength suits might work.
Given that crude exoskeletons as well as thought-controlled drones and prosthetic limbs already exist, Scientific American asked neuroscientist and roboticist Charles Higgins of the University of Arizona whether the kind of machine-enhanced human abilities in Elysium are likely anytime soon.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How close to reality are brain-connected exoskeletons?
The exoskeletons we have today are rather primitive. Raytheon's amplifies the muscle movements of a person and allows that person to lift 500 pounds of weight as if it felt like 10 pounds. Yet, it doesn't tie into the brain. The Raytheon exoskeleton is very slow. It allows you to lift a very heavy weight but it's not faster than a human. You move your arm and then it responds to that movement. That's really going to slow it down.
There are exoskeletons designed to help the paralyzed walk but they don't interface with the brain or spinal cord. There's a huge amount of research in this area of neuroprosthetics. You will see that in the field in hospitals in the next 20 or 30 years. It's an advance over the wheelchair but it's nowhere near the technology in the movie. That is going to give someone who is not able to walk the ability to walk, not the ability to leap over 15-foot walls.
Matt Damon's character has something screwed into the back of his head and, my bet is, something screwed into the spinal cord as well. Motor control is actually in the spinal cord. If you have that kind of interface to the brain and spinal cord you could get superhuman reflexes. The technology to do that doesn't really exist today. It's not even up to the Six Million Dollar Man level.
What else might such exoskeletons allow us to do?
They might actually affect the aged population a lot. My parents are in their 80s and can't get around as well. I can imagine someone like my mom, who occasionally uses a walker, wearing one to get around with the tiniest amount of muscle power. If you wear an exoskeleton, maybe you can lift 100 pounds—more than you could when you were 20. It's a huge difference in mobility and independence. It might even work around something like Parkinson's disease. You can train the exoskeleton to ignore the tremors.