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Sunday, 14 February 2016

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Becoming superhuman

Just a couple of days ago, I was watching the animated Superman: Doomsday movie on blu-ray and the theme struck me as being really odd. After all, Superman dies in this movie, something we do not take for granted when it comes to superheroes. Superman is resurrected later on in the movie, which did not surprise me at all - superheroes are supposed to be infallible, even in death.

We have literally grown up with superheroes who have inherent powers - and ordinary humans whose bodies had been augmented to achieve one or more of super powers. Superman and Batman are examples of the former category while the likes of Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman (TV favourites of the 1980s) represent the latter category. RoboCop is another example of a human who is basically re-engineered as a humanoid robot.

While all these remain firmly in the realm of fiction, scientists are working on technologies that could take us closer to the goal of creating super heroes out of ordinary mortals. Some of these technologies already exist at a practical or rudimentary stage. If you look at the origins of supermen and superwomen, the five general origins for all superhero powers are: Altered Humans (Spiderman, Fantastic Four), High-Tech Suited Wonders (Iron Man), Mutants (X-Men,) Robots (The Vision) and Aliens (Superman). We may be able to get the very same capabilities with the use of advanced, if pricey, technology. There is also a dawning realisation that the mind plays a part in some capabilities exhibited by certain people. And beyond the addition of super powers, technology will empower those who lack one or more of the capabilities that we usually have from birth - including vision, hearing and mobility.

Research

One of the most exciting possibilities in current scientific research is the possibility of having self-healing bodies. This topic has come to the fore now with the release of the action movie Deadpool, which features a super hero who has self-healing powers. There are self-healing materials which already have practical applications such as a phone from LG that can erase scratch marks. The goal is to extend that capability to biological tissue (some of them heal naturally anyway) and also to add synthetic materials to our natural organs to make them heal faster. This is unlikely to result in a person who can recover after a gunshot, but it could be a lifesaver for minor injuries. There is even a name for this exciting branch of science - quantum biology.

According to latest reports, a self-healing, self-adaptive and reversible material has been created by scientists in the US. The self-adaptive composite - called SAC - can heal itself over and over again and change its shape then return to its original form, a bit like T-1000 from Terminator 2. In the material, tiny spheres of polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) are held in a liquid material. Viscous polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) coats the whole surface. The spheres are very resilient, deforming easily and when they crack, it quickly and repeatedly heals itself. After it is compressed, it returns to its original shape like a sponge. The inventors say SAC could be used as a biocompatible material for tissue engineering or as a deface-tolerant structural component in engineering. This is just one major advance in self-healing techniques.

Capability

But we are even more interested in reaching beyond our human capability - who does not want to fly like Superman? Help is at hand, with personal jetpacks - the sort seen in the futuristic movie Minority Report. JetPack Aviation in the USA has already built one (model number JB-9) which can fly for about 4-5 minutes and cover about six kilometers during that time. The next model JB-10 will be faster and also more enduring. Jetpacks from this and other manufacturers should be commercially available within the next decade.

Given that Iron Man is basically wearing an exoskeleton with flying capabilities, scientists are also hot on his trail. There already are robotic exoskeletons that let the paralysed walk - the most popular ones cost between US$ 40,000-US$ 70,000 but expect the costs (both manufacturing and retail pricing) to come down rapidly over the years.

They will get increasingly sophisticated too. Since they are powered by a backpack battery (at the moment enough for 7-8 hours of use), a breakthrough in battery technology could also help. It will be decades before Iron Man's fusion reactor power is available for an exoskeleton, however.

There are countless other innovations which are already available that enable people to lead better lives, although these gadgets do not necessarily make them superhuman. For example, if you are partially sighted, there is a new kind of (very expensive at US$ 15,000) glass called e-Sight that enable you to see clearly. The price will come down over the years, along with the advent of even better technology. But what if you have perfect sight and want to magnify what you see? That could make you superhuman, in a way.

Superhuman

There are many ethical and regulatory issues involved in becoming superhuman, though. It is quite possible that only the very rich will have access to some of the technologies (see above examples) being made available commercially. This could give them an undue advantage over other people. In fact, when South African athlete Oscar Pistorius used to compete with able-bodied athletes, fears were expressed that he could have an undue advantage owing to his carbon fibre/titanium 'legs'. Indeed, a 'super' athlete can make the playing field rather uneven.

The moral dilemmas are endless - if two persons are involved in an accident and if only one of them has self-healing organs, what are the consequences? How can Governments regulate 'flying humans' in the skies already teeming with drones and other flying objects? These questions will not arise immediately, but the future is coming rather fast, as we have seen with the rapid rise of driverless cars.

One thing is certain, however - we will be able to see some 'super humans' in the near future if technology keeps its current pace and focus.

 

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