Will powerful technologies like robots and genetic engineering endanger the human species? That is the common question which exists in every human’s mind. The deteriorating world economy has apparently not hampered scientists from trying to bring man closer to machine. So if you ever wanted to live your life like the Terminator or even Iron Man, the right gadgets that will supplement your puny human build and make you a superhero of sorts might just be a few years away.
Take for instance, the ‘vision sequence’. Almost all futuristic superhero depictions (even the Predator, who is not from the future but is an alien and therefore assumed to be “advanced”) show a range of heat and distance scanners, metrics, gauges, radars and control systems — all seen through the head- or eye- gear of the wearer.
So researchers at the University of Washington went ahead and tried to create something similar. What they are currently working on is a computerized contact lens that will allow people to read e-mails and text messages, or view images directly in their field of vision. These lenses use metal circuits, barely a few nanometers thick. To put it into perspective (pun intended), that is 1/1000th the width of a human hair.
The lens, which has a tiny LED embedded into it, utilizes a separate, thinner lens that projects the image of the LED directly into the eye’s retina. This is done to get around the limitation of the human eye not being able to see objects closer than the minimum focal length. For the technology to work, a power source needs to be placed close to the eye (perched on the ear perhaps), but researchers are working on a way to alleviate the inconvenience that might cause. The idea is still considered a ‘proof of concept’, underscoring that the technology to enable hands-free information control is much more complicated than simple voice-activated controls on phones! A cheeky observer would, however, notice that even companies like Google deem all their products to be in ‘beta’ phase for a considerable time. Also, development of bionic contact lenses like these would require some serious investment in this technology — something a billionaire slash wannabe superhero should certainly consider. So if you’re reading this, you know what to do, Mr. Wayne or Stark, or whoever you are.
A bit too thick-skinned?
Another development that future superheroes might be interested in is how to become bullet proof. In the rebooted Ultimate Iron Man comic books, Howard Stark (Tony Stark’s dad) invents ‘skin’ which can seemingly deflect any projectile, short of an atomic bomb. This ‘skin’ is actually tightly-bunched microbes which can not only eat away metal as soon as it comes into contact with them, but also compact even more densely when hit with force. Coming back to reality, you might be surprised to know but the white coats have been working on something similar. While scientists didn’t use microbes, they decided the best way to go about creating this “bulletproof skin” was to use goat milk and spider silk. To do this, Keratin, the protein responsible for the toughness in human skin, needed to be replaced with spider silk, which is even tougher. So scientists genetically “engineered” goats to produce milk which contained spider silk protein. They then spun the milk into a material that is ten times stronger than steel before growing a layer of human skin on it — a process that takes five weeks to complete. Despite certain caveats (for example, the “skin” can only stop a bullet at a reduced speed), the experiment essentially turned sci-fi into reality.
But what about suits and rocket shoes?
Well, Paul Zehr, the author of Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine says we are just about 30 years away from the technology. But when he says that, he means suits that are as form-fitting, and incorporate machine-brain interfaces, like those shown in Iron Man movies. Equipment like that mandates supreme technological prowess, and a number of engineering efforts to produce something similar are already underway.
The Raytheon Company, for instance, has been working on exoskeletons with the US military for quite some time — they revealed their second effort, the XOS 2, last year. The ‘shell’ looks a lot like the e-frames out of the Exos quad cartoons from the ’90s; and while they don’t feature flight, they do let a person lift over 200 pounds without much effort, as well as punch through three inches of wood. The exoskeleton has “less of skeleton and more of suit” in its design, and doesn’t seem to hamper any movement. In fact, it only enhances movements. And despite looking clunky, it still allows enough grace for the wearer to play some (awkward) football.
Even more impressive is the robot suit HAL-5 created by Dr Sankai at the Japanese robotics and technology company Cyberdyne Inc. While the exoskeleton by Raytheon relies on hydraulics to perform its functions, the HAL-5 amplifies nerve signals to electrical ones through a central computing unit. This allows people with paralysis or extremely weak muscles to regain mobility. Alternatively, it can enable a casual wearer to generate super human strength! What is even more interesting is how close the technology is to being implemented — clinical trials by five Japanese hospitals are set to be underway as close as 2012. There are plenty of other contraptions in the works too, from pulse beams to palladium power generators. However, at the rate the global security paranoia is growing, none of these technologies might ever be allowed near us (the infamous) Pakistanis. So at present, the nearest you can get to Class A superhero is via television screens.