Scifi Eye: the future of wearable exoskeletons

MoonScience fiction novelist Gareth L Powell considers where developments in exoskeletons and implantable electronics might ultimately lead

A recent issue of The Engineer carried a story about a tetraplegic man who has taken his first steps in a laboratory thanks to an exoskeleton suit developed by biomedical research centre Clinatec and the University of Grenoble. On the same page, it also mentioned that Birmingham University researchers have developed a new self-healing polymer-based hydrogel that can be used to print soft biomaterials to repair defects in the body.

Tetraplegic man walks in brain-linked exoskeleton

Mention exoskeletons to any science fiction fan, and they will immediately think of Ripley’s clunky yellow power loader from the 1986 film Aliens—a kind of wearable JCB that gets repurposed in the finale as a suit of armour. But might these new developments offer us the opportunity to do something a little more radical than reinvent the fork-lift truck?

While both the US and Russia are developing military exoskeletons to improve the strength, speed and stamina of their soldiers, these essentially amount to a series of struts and motors strapped to the limbs of the individual. Add in one of the jet packs currently also under development, and we have the beginnings of Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit.

wearable exoskeletons
Image: James Thew via stock.adobe.com

However, if these exoskeletons can be controlled by wireless electrodes in the brain (as they are in the case of the man who just took his first steps in the prototype mentioned at the top of this article), it begs the question: do we need the human present at all?

If we can print biomaterials and a workable skeleton, could we combine them to form synthetic bodies controlled by a living operator some distance away? It could certainly be one solution to reducing air travel. Instead of flying across the Atlantic, you would hook yourself into an artificial body designed to resemble you, and attend your business meeting, publicity junket or political summit remotely—with the advantage of being able to shake hands and physically interact with the other attendees.

Maybe we could replace the bulls at Pamplona with synthetic bulls controlled by gamers from around the globe

Another application, assuming the haptic feedback from the synthetic fingers could be made fine enough to enable a genuine sense of touch and dexterity, could be in the construction of disposable bodies for bomb disposal experts, or clean-up crews in radioactive or otherwise toxic environments—maybe even construction crews on the seabed. Imagine being able to walk around the wreck of the Titanic or explore the depths of a deep ocean trench.

As the technology matures and the interface between the machine and the nervous system gets better, these remote bodies could be used for more intimate purposes, such as maintaining a long-distance sexual relationship.

And who says we even have to stick with making them human? Perhaps you could roam the forests of India in the body of a tiger or ride the Rocky mountain updrafts as an eagle. Maybe we could even replace the bulls at Pamplona with synthetic bulls controlled by gamers from around the globe, allowing thrill seekers to brave a trampling while sparing actual animals the stress of the event—and who wouldn’t want to remotely gore a few tourists, just for fun?

On a more serious note, might it be possible to create tiny creatures that could allow surgeons to remotely explore the inner workings of the human body in order to diagnose and combat tumours and other disorders—although the cognitive dissonance of ‘inhabiting’ such a creature might take a bit of getting used to!

William Gibson famously wrote that, “The street finds its own use for things.” The same goes for the military. Any technology allowing a doctor to enter and fix a human body could also be used to allow an assassin to infiltrate and wreck one from the inside. Snip a couple of blood vessels in the brain, the results will resemble a stroke, and your opponent will have died from apparently natural causes.

So far, all these speculations have been earthbound. As a science fiction writer, I have to look higher and think weirder. Yes, we could have remote astronauts walking barefoot across the Sea of Tranquillity, but that seems rather tame. Instead, picture jacking your consciousness into a balloon-like creature riding the winds of Jupiter, or maybe a swarm of tardigrades on the surface of Titan.

Thinking bigger still, we could print a whale-like organism, equip it with fusion motors, and set it off into interstellar space. The ‘lag’ between operator and ship would gradually grow unmanageable as distance increases—by the time it reached our nearest star, a signal from Earth would take four years to reach it, and another four years to return—it would still be theoretically possible to access the remote and experience what it experienced four years previously; ideal if you wanted to feel you were gazing on an alien star system with your own eyes!

Gareth L Powell is the author of several novels, including Silversands, The Recollection, Ack-Ack Macaque, Hive Monkey, Macaque Attack, and Embers of War. He has won the BSFA Award for Best Novel twice, for Ack-Ack Macaque in 2013 and Embers of War in 2019.