Have you ever wanted to be able to see through barriers or punch through walls? How about hacking a computer to allow you to walk unimpeded through secure areas?
Probably not, but the technology to allow you to do those things is much closer than you might realize.
A recently released video game, “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” (Eidos Montreal, Square Enix), features the main character as Adam Jensen, a cop who was forced to undergo electronic augmentations after a massive attack. Some of his augmentations allow him to do things that normal people can’t, but how realistic are those abilities?
Developers worked with a company called MicroTransponder, a medical device research company that is working on implant to actually control nerve impulses in the human body. Their CEO, Will Rosellini, was a fan of the first “Deus Ex” game and wanted to help make the game believable.
Rosellini, a retired professional pitcher, got interested in neuroprosthetics after hanging up his cleats in 2001 and went back to school with the idea of becoming an expert in neurotechnology.
Neuroprosthetics are mechanical or electrical software devices that enhance the nervous system or can take a damaged or diseased neurosystem and make it better. Devices like cardiac pacemakers or spinal cord stimulates are some real world examples.
Six graduate degrees later, he started his company with the idea of making devices that can ultimately control robotic, prosthetic limbs.
The devices his company currently makes can treat chronic pain, urinary incontinence or help repair motor skills to alleviate upper and lower limb deficits after a stroke. The type of treatment depends on which nerves the devices stimulate.
Rosellini and Eidos wanted to predict what neurotechnology would be like in the year 2027, the setting for “Deus Ex: Human Revolution.” Designers presented him with about 25 features and player abilities they wanted to use and he extrapolated out current day technology to make the abilities believable.
For example, with his new augmented arms, Jensen can punch through walls. Rosellini said currently there is a $100 million program with the U.S. Department of Defense that produces prosthetic limbs, which can withstand that kind of force when development is projected into the future.
“If the military decided that it was important for soldiers to have that kind of strength, it’s not too far to imagine they could enhance the energy requirements in that arm and you could easily punch through a wall,” Rosellini explained.
“The government has also been looking at ways to deliver payload in a much more cost efficient manner so they’ve developed what they call exo-skeletons. Soldiers are attached to these mechanical augmentations and they can lift 10 to 100 times their body weight.”
Developers didn’t want to ruin the feel of the game by making Jensen able to do outlandish things with his augmentations. Some of the technology that seems out of reach does have some basis in today’s devices.
“The game needed a way to have the player have an automatically regenerating health bar so you’re not dying every two minutes,” Rosellini said. “The way we explain that is there is a company called SetPoint Medical that is stimulating a nerve to control the immune system, healing and inflammation. So conceivably, that technology in its infancy could be developed to a point where health regeneration could be controlled using electronics.”
Rosellini admitted there are some augmentation abilities, like invisibility or floating to the ground using an energy buffer, that may be possible 20 years down the road, but don’t have any current basis.
“Social enhancers, where you can manipulate the brain to be better socially, is pretty far away. A lot of the cognitive enhancements in the game are pretty far away.”
“Deus Ex: Human Revolution” also explores the schism between people who embrace augmentations as the future of humanity versus those who believe electronic implants are an abomination. Indeed, the ending ultimately revolves around the conflict between the haves and the have-nots.
Rosellini said this is also based in current times.
“That is the biggest debate in our country today, which is how is healthcare delivered?,” he said. “Companies like us have shown that (neurotechnology) therapy works in the clinic, but unfortunately, Medicare has said we’re not going to pay for that technology.”
“This is an argument that is going to be happening over the next 20 years for sure.”
The idea of electrical manipulation has been around since ancient Greece, where Greeks were stepping on electric eels to alleviate leg pain. As technology got smaller and smaller over the years, doctors and researchers began to realize that microtechnology could be small enough and powerful enough to put in the body.
Could people begin to seek electronic augmentation to enhance their abilities rather than just treat an illness? Rosellini said the increased use of steroids and the demand for Viagra are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The appetite for self-improvement is there. We want to be prettier, faster, stronger, bigger, younger,” he said. “Can a medical device deliver that? Today, not really.”
But in the year 2037? The world will be a much different place.
“Deus Ex: Human Revolution” is available now for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It is rated M for mature due to blood, drug references, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, and use of alcohol.