The science of Sony's 'Elysium': This is your brain on robotics

It's all fun and games until someone gets their exoskeleton bashed in.

In the futuristic, megabudget movie "Elysium," which opens in theaters nationwide today, Matt Damon relies on an exoskeleton to keep him moving -- and punching and shooting -- even though his own body is failing him. The utopian orbiting space station and dystopian poverty of planet Earth is set in the year 2154, and certainly some of the science-fiction elements are at least that far away. Many others may never come to pass.

But the exoskeleton technology featured in the movie could be closer than we think, able to assist paraplegics as well as action heroes.

"It's speculation on technology that does not exist," said Charles Higgins, a researcher and professor of neuroscience at the University of Arizona. "But it could be used for someone who is paralyzed, and I think we're actually making progress," Higgins told

Higgins says it's not fanciful to think that the first exoskeltons like those depicted in "Elysium" could be available in 50 to 100 years.

'If this were real, there'd be an interface not only to the brain but also to the spinal cord.'

— Charles Higgins, a researcher and professor of neuroscience at the University of Arizona

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Researchers have already demonstrated several similar technologies. This week, an exoskeleton designed to assist disabled people climb stairs and help themselves out of chairs passed safety tests in Germany, opening the possibility that it may be sold soon in Europe. Made by Japanese company Cyberdyne, the Hybrid Assisted Limb or HAL system is already being tested in hospitals.

On the military side, Raytheon has been working for years on a combat exoskeleton, dubbed the XOS 2. The system gives the wearer seemingly superhuman strength, allowing a person to lift hundreds of pounds with ease and punch through walls (no, it does not fly -- yet).

Perhaps some of the most advanced human assistance systems, however, are those being developed as prosthetics. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Targeted Muscle Re-innveration (TMR) for Advanced Prosthetic Control experimental prosthetics are not something that one simply wears. The devices actually read muscle and nerve impulses, which in turn control a robotic arm. It requires extensive surgery and the user has to essentially retrain certain muscles, but it can yield astounding results, such as enabling the wearer to catch a bouncing ball.

There are still daunting technical hurdles to overcome, however, before the exoskeletons of Elysium become a reality.

"We require a new power technology" to really make exoskeletons practical, explains Higgins. The Raytheon model, for example, requires so much power it has to be plugged in. The lighter, less powerful Cyberdyne device runs on batteries, but for only up to a reported 2 hours and 40 minutes.

The other problem is control.

"If this were real, there'd be an interface not only to the brain but also to the spinal cord," explains Higgins. He explained that while designs like Raytheon's are powerful, they are also slow. To achieve superhuman reaction times, such as those depicted in Elysium, a neurological connection is needed in addition to tapping into the spinal cord to speed up communications (hence the gruesome surgery performed on Damon's character in the film.)

Unfortunately, experimental systems that use brain implanted electrodes tend to wear out their connections within two years, meaning additional potentially brain damaging surgery would be required. And non-vasive systems, like EEG (electroencephalogram) helmets that read a brain's electrical signals from the outside are fine for moving a cursor on a screen but not sufficiently detailed to help somebody walk.

So is there a solution to creating the ultimate brain-machine interface?

"I'm betting on ECOG," says Higgins. ECOG or electrocorticography is a method of using sensors on the surface of the brain to measure and record signals. "This may move it forward because it doesn't do any damage to the brain, and the information can be sent out wirelessly."

Even more critical to the plot line of Elysium than exoskeletons is technology to be able to download the contents of someone's brain. It makes for great sci-fi story twists, but it could also mean incredible medical breakthroughs.

"Think of someone who has a stroke and we lose all that. That shouldn't happen; we need to be able to download the contents of the brain," says Higgins. Unfortunately, there are 100 billion neurons in the brain, and researchers still don't understand where and how memories and concepts are stored. "So we are not there as far as recording everything that goes on in the brain."