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.
How long until we see this kind of thing?
There are two missing pieces: One is a long-term interface to the brain and spinal cord. We can put electrodes in the brain but we have yet to make them last more than a few years. A brain has this way of insulating things stuck in it, which is a good thing. Second, we just don't know enough about what the brain and spinal cord are doing to make this exoskeleton. If it's 2154, there's a chance we might have figured that out; 2054, I think not.
Another problem with the exoskeleton is power. Our bodies are really power efficient. When we walk we use very little power—we just fall from step to step and the Achilles tendon picks up some of that force and pushes us forward. We can walk for miles and miles. The Raytheon exoskeleton has this big tether coming off the back of it because it consumes a tremendous amount of energy. The battery technology is not there yet. Nuclear engineers have a nuclear power supply that is very small that could power something like [Elysium's] exoskeleton for 100 years, but if you ever breach it, you have a serious nuclear emergency.
But you've already wired together insects and robots?
I build hybrid robots that involve insect brains. Interfacing insects to robots started with hawk moths. They're cheap, and it's easy for me to get them. My first experiment was taking a hawk moth [and] putting an electrode in its brain neuron that looked for left and right motion. You could make a robot turn left or right depending on the hawk moth. It was just to show it could be done, but it turned out to be pretty difficult to do.
Then there's dragonflies. Dragonflies are awfully good at detecting small, moving targets. They live for several years as aquatic organisms and come out as adults for only eight to 12 weeks. All they care about is finding food and mating. They are predatory machines. They are looking for other flying objects and they either want to eat it or mate with it. You can use them as a living visual sensor and guide our robots to a small, moving target.
I'm taking a praying mantis and giving it a body that's much bigger than its own and the ability to control that body. It's like giving it a massively large exoskeleton to see whether it can learn to control it. Flight behavior is relatively simple. I'm interested in the praying mantis because it has very complex walking behavior and I want to see if it can transfer that to a robot.
What applications do you foresee?
Brain tissue is really good at some things that regular computers are not. Processing sensory info is a good example. We are not able to build visual sensors as good at detecting small moving objects as dragonflies and certainly not with that level of power consumption. So what if you genetically engineer a living visual system and slap it on to a robot? Then you have the best of both worlds: high speed silicon-based processing and neural processing that does what it does best. Take the hawk moth. They can be trained to detect explosives—they can smell them. You hook into the olfactory system of the hawk moth and build a bomb-sniffing robot that has the drive electronics of a regular robot and the nose of a hawk moth. Or take a dragonfly and use its visual system. It's having a robot that has the intelligence of a dragonfly; it can avoid obstacles and fly around.
It is dead cheap compared to electronics, but they die, so you have to replace them periodically. There is the potential for reconnaissance that we are not able to do right now. That's what I'm being funded to work on for the U.S. Air Force. You don't have to send a Marine over the hill, but unarmed drones. If at least one gets back, we've got the reconnaissance data and we didn't lose a human.
Or it could fly along in advance of the convoy looking at the road and detecting improvised explosive devices. When it detects one, maybe they just fly into it and blow it up. I'm fine with that as long as they're cheap enough. We need to have that rather than a Humvee runs over the IED and we have Marines killed. That's something you should be seeing in the next few years.
How could that insect–robot hybrid work be scaled up to humans?
The hybrid there is to connect the brain, spinal cord and existing nerve endings of an amputated limb and use all that information to guide a robot system. For example, there are electrodes implanted in the pectoral muscles of the chest that connect to a robotic limb. You can use the pectoral muscles to control the robotic arm with pretty good facility.
In 50 to 75 years if you're going to be a high-end fighter pilot, you will have a neural implant that connects directly to the aircraft. Rather than using your limbs to control the fighter you will control it directly with your brain. That will give you reflexes that are superhuman. Once you can do that, it's not that big a deal to connect to an exoskeleton.
Is it more likely we'll just have robots fight for us?
That depends: When will we be able to build a machine that is as intelligent as a human? When can we send a robot to Elysium and have it do the task that Matt Damon does in this movie? A truly intelligent robot, one as intelligent as a human being—we are a very long way off of that. We are really clueless about cognition.
Even in insect brains we have no clue about the basis of decision-making. In humans it is so complex. So maybe focus on how insects make decisions. Maybe it's a scaled down version of how a rat does it, so scale it up to a rat, then a cat. But then humans, with language, have extra tricks.
For the foreseeable future, even in 2254, you're going to want a human being in the decision loop. So you will augment a human being rather than create a truly autonomous device.
I can tell you for a fact that the U.S. military leadership is very interested in keeping humans in the loop. The military has access to autonomous vehicles that they don't want to use. They are actually very conservative and concerned about things like civilian casualties. They want a human to decide every time a trigger is pulled. Humans make mistakes, too, but they can be forgiven. When an artificial device makes a deadly mistake, it cannot be forgiven. They have to be utterly reliable.