Thinking Tech

How Iron Man could exist, but at a cost

How Iron Man could exist, but at a cost

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Could a real-life Iron Man exist? SmartPlanet interviews real-life superhero expert E. Paul Zehr, professor of kinesiology and neuroscience.

Iron Man Robert Downey Jr

Iron Man is a self-invented superhero. A person with great possibility. It was a human genius billionaire playboy, Tony Stark, who developed the suits that power him to defend the world from evil. While it may seem the suits are limited to the world of cyber punk sci-fi much of the technological magic exists today. And the rest of it may indeed, in some form, exist within the foreseeable future. But what would the impact be, on our brain and body, to wear a suit that profoundly amplifies all movements and thoughts?  Smart Planet turned to E. Paul Zehr, professor of kinesiology and neuroscience, and author of the recently published Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of A Human Machine, for the surprising and cautionary answers. The future may be amazing but as we learned in this interview, it comes at a cost.

Smart Planet: How close are we today to having something like an Iron Man suit?

E. Paul Zehr: Well today we already have the exoskeletal suits like the HAL [hybrid assisted limb] robot and ReWalk robotic exoskeleton.

SP: You mean the machine suits that help disabled people walk and could be used to make soldiers stronger?

EPZ: Right. Those are machines that would work like the shuffling grey armor that we saw in the first [Iron Man] movie or in the original Iron Man comics. We have that technology right now. So if you need something rehabilitative, like a piece of technology that can help someone walk up the stairs. There you go. It’s done.

The tricky part is how do we get the interface so that it can work like it’s a seamless part human body, not something you just put on but rather something you interact with directly.

SP: You mean interact directly between your brain and body?

EPZ: Yes. For instance like the story behind the NTU-150 (Neuromimetic Telepresence Unit) and the Extremis armor Tony Stark created.

Tony gets shot in the stomach by a bitter girlfriend and winds up with a spinal cord injury that healed up magically because it’s comic books, but while he’s injured he realizes he still has to be Iron Man. So he creates a robot suit of armor that can be remotely controlled like a drone. He does this by connecting it to his brain. He creates a headset that takes commands from his brain and then control the robot.

It is an extreme—to interface with the mind. Warren Ellis was the only writer who really took it to that extreme [i.e, with the Extremis suit that came after the NTU-150 and essentially turned Tony into a true cyborg.] And my view is the Warren Ellis storyline is how this suit would really work.

SP: Could something like this brain-controlled suit exist today?

EPZ: Extremis is pitched as a brain-machine interface. It is not something you just throw on. It will get its commands directly from your nervous system. Today we have suits that respond to small movement. But for the Extremis suit a layer of electrical sensors lie just under the skin. Basically you are electrically connected to the suit. The suit drives all the commands coming from the nervous system. One of the neat things is that it fits with today’s neural prosthetics, the experimental ones that are connected to the nervous system, as in an artificial limb.

SP: Like the monkeys, linked up to a computer, that can control a robotic arm with their thoughts alone?

EPZ: Yes. A lot of this technology exists, at least in the lab, and we have vastly improved our ability to record neural patterns from the brain.

SP: Controlling an artificial limb by thoughts alone is probably a lot more simple than controlling every single body movement and body reaction, with thoughts alone.

EPZ: Yes. The problem is to really control a suit of armor, you need so many channels of control, you need so much information about what the brain is trying to do. We have over 100 billion neurons with roughly 100 trillion synaptic connections. You need to extract that information and then wire that through some interface to the suit of armor.

A huge limitation is how do we today get that information out of the human brain and spinal cord. And that is sidestepped in the Extremis story line. Call it willful suspension of disbelief.

SP: What is the state of the art today for such technology?

EPZ: The largest simultaneous recording of neurons in the brain that I know of is using about a 500-cell sample with an implanted electrode into the brain. That means only 500 neurons at once. Which from a neurophysiologists perspective is crazy large but if you think about the fact that out of 100 billion you get 500, we are still a long way from getting all the information we need to control something as sophisticated as the Iron Man suit.

SP: So what needs to happen to make it possible?

EPZ: We are making good advances in getting recordings from the brain. And I think we’ll develop better algorithms that extract more information that could be used as control signals. A big grey area, however, is the efficacy of having electrodes in the body. You can’t just be putting electrodes into the body and pulling them out every day like a band-aid, they have to go in and then stay in.

SP: Let’s say we had a completely integrated Iron Man suit, how would that alter or impact our brain?

EPZ: This was the wildest thing for me from writing this book. This is the thing that I have puzzled over and still do. Normally there is a representation in your brain of the nerves cells in different brain regions. For instance, your brain does not devote the same quantity brain real estate for your finger as for your toe, even though they might be a similar size. The brain real estate is based on function and the amount of control each part requires. For instance the mouth is controlled by a large swath of brain cells because it is so sensitive.

SP: Interesting. And what does this have to do with controlling a super hero suit?

EPZ: Well we know from studies that the devotion of different parts of the brain can change pretty rapidly if some part of the body is damaged. We know that if someone has a limb amputation, the parts of the brain that normally got sensation from the limb and controlled that limb, get taken over by other parts of the brain. The brain doesn’t just sit there waiting for input from the missing limb, it starts to take on other jobs for other parts of the body.

SP: Right, this is called neuroplasticity, the fact that the brain can change and is malleable.

EPZ: Yes. The brain reuses those dormant parts. In the case of Iron Man suit of armor what you are really saying is that we are going to take another body and try to map it into the brain. Because we know that when people use objects like artificial limbs or even other tools they get a sense that these extensions are part of their own body. So what would happen to Tony Stark’s brain? All the limbs are there, nothing is missing, but we add another body to it, does the brain re-map itself to take up the properties and the sensations of the Iron Man suit?  It probably would. Does Tony Stark forget how to use his body if he uses the Iron Man suit all the time? We don’t have answers to this question because the only kind of experiences we have had with long-term brain machine interface use is primarily with rodents and primates.

And you can’t ask a mouse or a monkey, “What’s it like to use your real arm now?”  That is where the answers are, by they way, in the monkey’s brains.

SP: And what happens to the physical body if you wear the suit?

EPZ: The suit would remove the typical large forces that act on your body daily, like gravity for example. So while wearing the suit you’d become a passive mover in your own body. We maintain muscle mass and bone density and cardiovascular ability all based on what we are required to do on a daily basis. If you are in an exoskeletal suit it’s doing all the work for you. As a result you’d become extremely de-conditioned, similar to your body’s reaction to months of bed rest, or what astronauts experience within zero gravity.

SP: How long will it take to create something like the Extremis suit?

EPZ: I tried to base my estimate on other kinds of scientific advancement in last century. If you think about how long it took for the miniaturization of technology, for instance think about the first flash drive at 256 MB for $500 and then 10 years later, to have 8G for a mere $10.  I thought about the cost and power transitions that have happened and factored in some huge leaps, which do happen in science, and came up with a 40-year timeline, assuming we were starting with all the technology we have now.

SP: What would be the biggest challenge to overcome?

EPZ: The power source. Even when you look at the commercial devices today, like the HAL suit the operating range is only 2 to 3 hours. Maybe something innovative will come out of all the work done with electric cars, although you wouldn’t want to lug a 200-pound battery around. So we could very well have a suit that we could control and all the needed integration, but if you still have to plug it into the wall? Forget it. That’s not going to work.

SP: In the book you say Tony Stark is a centi-tasker. Do we need to become super multi-taskers to be Iron Man?

EPZ: We have no idea how difficult it would be to control all of those variables in the extreme version of the suit. In the movie there is a moment when Tony Stark pulls up the visor and you see lights whipping around and he’s got music going and he is doing so many things at once. You’d never be able to do all that. He is a centi-tasker. Some have the ability to do moderate multitasking. Pilots are trained to be better multi-taskers. But can you train to be a super-tasker? We don’t know. People can get better, but ultimately to pay attention to even just two or three things at a time becomes very difficult.

SP: Tony Stark is often portrayed as a partying playboy. What is the impact of drinking while wearing the suit?

EPZ: There are a lot of story lines of Tony being over-served and there’s a recovering alcoholic story line too. But if you think about the effect that alcohol has on the nervous system in terms of a depressing effect and reducing cognitive ability and the overall function of your nervous system—and if you have a suit of armor that is connected to your nervous system that is amplifying your abilities and you are drinking, you’ve got a disaster waiting to happen. It’s way more damaging that what could happen when you operate a vehicle, for instance, which also amplifies your abilities. Drinking and piloting the Iron Man are not recommended.

SP: In the book you recommend a lot of training before using the suit. Can you unpack that for us?

EPZ: Because the suit amplifies your abilities and movements and choices. Any poor quality of your movement or decisions is going to be amplified as well. If you had Nadal’s tennis racket it’s not going to make you Nadal, you need the ability as well. Otherwise the tennis racket is just going to send your ball further in the wrong direction.

SP: How much training are you suggesting?

EPZ: Tony Stark did about maybe 5 to 7 years of physical training. So there’s at least a commitment of five years to develop solid skill.

SP: Once he’s created the suit, how long would he have to use it?

EPZ: Our bodies start working a bit slower as we age beyond our 20s. But in addition something that is not always obvious is that there is a guy inside this Iron Man suit and when he is getting pummeled around there is significant trauma to his body even if he is not breaking bones. You still have pressure waves that can move through your body and cause damage to your internal organs.

The thing about Iron Man is that he is always fighting people who are using explosives and all kinds of advanced weaponry that can create concussive blasts. He would definitely have issues of concussion. So he’d have a relatively short career for all the investment he puts into it in the first place.

SP: Who is easier to become, Batman or Iron Man?

EPZ: Both of them are quite a challenge. I am not sure one is easier than the other. The kind of training that Batman requires is ridiculous. With Tony Stark he is developing a lot of it on his own. One thing worth noting is that we are a lot more closer to producing an Iron Man than a Batman. The band-aid of technology that allows for an Iron Man is going to come a lot sooner, while with Batman we are already pushing the limits of our biology.

SP: What would you like readers to take away from the book, even if they don’t set out to become Iron Man?

EPZ: That our nervous system is amazing. We used to think it was all fixed, but that is not the case. The system can modify connections. Whether you are trying to become Iron Man this is what happens when you practice something, your brain really does change. That is sculpting a change in who you are. It puts the power in your hands in terms of who you want to be.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure