Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine
E. Paul Zehr
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Tony Stark has been battling bad guys and protecting innocent civilians since he first donned his mechanized armor in the 1963 debut of Iron Man in Marvel Comics. Over the years, Stark’s suit has allowed him to smash through walls, fly through the air like a human jet, control a bewildering array of weaponry by thought alone, and perform an uncountable number of other fantastic feats. The man who showed us all what it would take to become Batman probes whether science―and humankind―is up to the task of inventing a real-life Iron Man.
E. Paul Zehr physically deconstructs Iron Man to find out how we could use modern-day technology to create a suit of armor similar to the one Stark made. Applying scientific principles and an incredibly creative mind to the question, Zehr looks at how Iron Man’s suit allows Stark to become a superhero. He discusses the mind-boggling and body-straining feats Iron Man performed to defeat villains like Crimson Dynamo, Iron Monger, and Whiplash and how such acts would play out in the real world. Zehr finds that science is nearing the point where a suit like Iron Man’s could be made. But superherodom is not just about technology. Zehr also discusses our own physical limitations and asks whether an extremely well-conditioned person could use Iron Man’s armor and do what he does.
A scientifically sound look at brain-machine interfaces and the outer limits where neuroscience and neural plasticity meet, Inventing Iron Man is a fun comparison between comic book science fiction and modern science. If you’ve ever wondered whether you have what it takes to be the ultimate human-machine hero, then this book is for you.
delayed flight. I was running on a very soft springy moving walkway and just kept right on running as I came off the other end and landed on the hard tiled surface of the normal airport walkway. The jarring that I experienced felt like it had loosened all my teeth. It only took one step and then my body—set by my brain—had adjusted. You may have experienced this kind of thing by actually running in the sand. You get a similar kind of mismatch if you are running or walking down a
movement control. It is often said that the human brain is the most complex organ. Measuring activity in such a complex organ is not as simple as you might imagine. Remember, there are 101 billion neurons to listen in on. And they have to communicate together in useful patterns in order to produce all the behaviors we are capable of. Technology has often been a limitation for this kind of measurement and only small numbers of neurons have been recorded. In 2007, MIT neuroscientists Timothy
dramas where huge paddles are used on the chest wall, except much lower levels of electricity are needed since the implantable ones are right inside the body. I don’t think Tony had need for a pacemaker but we are going to assume he needs an implantable defibrillator ready to step in and reset his heart rhythm if it changes dangerously. Figure 7.3 shows what an implantable defibrillator looks like when inside someone. The wires from the implanted defibrillator (see label “electrodes in heart”)
You are fully calibrated for this in the same way that your brain body maps are calibrated to your body parts as we learned in chapter 3. In order for the Iron Man suit to respond in a way that you or Tony or Rhodey could control effectively, it would need to work on command signals for your neurons on that millisecond timescale. Anything further downstream (like using actual movements of the body to trigger the motors in the suit) would introduce huge delays. Using that approach would be like
21, 22, 23–26 underuse of, 82–83, 83 myelin, 24 Na-K ATPase (cellular pump), 20 nanotechnology, 112 nerves: monitoring to make motors move, 39–45 in spine and dermatomes, 21, 22 nervous system: as adaptable and changeable, 90 commands to limbs from, 39, 45, 46, 47 damage to from blast waves, 172 depicted in Ultimate Iron Man graphic novel, 120–21 effects of alcohol on, 116–19 electrical nature of, 50 excitable tissue in, 19–20, 49 with reduced activity level, 83 stimulants for,