The highly anticipated science fiction film "Elysium" opens on Aug. 9. The film will be the second directed by Neill Blomkamp ("District 9") and much of the action will involve star Matt Damon wearing a special exoskeleton in order to enhance his strength and essentially give him super powers. Scientific American decided to find out just when such suits would no longer be science fiction but science fact.
Inventions that could pave the way to creating a strength suit already exist including thought-controlled drones and prosthetic limbs. Neuroscientist and roboticist Charles Higgins of the University of Arizona explained to Scientific American that even though we have made some progress toward what is seen in "Elysium" we are still very far away.
"The exoskeletons we have today are rather primitive," Higgins said. "Raytheon's (exoskeleton) amplifies the muscle movements of a person and allows that person to lift 500 pounds of weight as if it felt like 10 pounds. The Raytheon exoskeleton is very slow."
Higgins explains that unless an exoskeleton is somehow attached directly to the brain that it will always be a bit slow since it has to rely on waiting for the person to move before it can move. The key to getting the kind of technology seen in "Elysium" would come from tapping into the spinal cord in order to have super human reflexes, an advancement that is still many years away.
Higgins thinks that any advancement in exoskeleton technology will most likely be used to help older humans function as opposed to giving physically fit people "super powers."
"The might actually affect the aged population a lot," Higgins told Scientific American. "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."
In addition to needing to find a way to connect directly to the brain the next biggest hurdle in building an exoskeleton would come from finding an efficient way to power it. Higgins explains that battery technology is nowhere near where it needs to be in order to run an enormous exoskeleton and that while it could be done using nuclear power that would be incredibly dangerous.
Higgins believes that the technology to link a machine to a neural implant will exist in about 75 years and that an exoskeleton will shortly follow. The one thing that Higgins does not see happening is a total reliance on robots without at least some human involvement being used by the military, according to Scientific American.
"For the foreseeable future, even in 2254, you're going to want a human being in the decision loop," Higgins said. "So you will augment a human being rather than create a truly autonomous device."
Thankfully special effects make it so moviegoers don't have to wait until 2254 to see exoskeletons in action; they merely have to wait until Aug. 9 when "Elysium" opens at theaters nationwide.