Dawn of the super-humans

With 60% of fictional superheroes deriving their superpowers from science, Ollie Burton investigates just how close we are to creating our own superhuman powers.

29th February 2016

Children have been growing up with superhero stories and comics since the 1930s, and even 80 years later they still succeed in capturing our wildest imaginations. But what if these tales of wonder and superhuman feats were rapidly becoming possible? We live in a time where bioengineering and biomechanics are evolving exponentially – so how close are we?

Let’s start with something simple – incredible strength. While we are currently unable to directly bolster our innate biological strength capacity, powered exoskeletons are pretty close. Essentially a mechanical suit fits over the body of the user, and complex systems of hydraulics and servos allow users to carry much more than would be normally possible. One of the main proposed uses is within the military – soldiers could lift loads up to 300kg while running, or wield weapons that would normally need to be stationary or mounted to a mobile platform. Such systems are also currently in use to augment the walking ability of disabled users, featuring powered hip and knee motion.

"While we are currently unable to directly bolster our innate biological strength capacity, powered exoskeletons are pretty close"

Another burgeoning field of study is nanorobotics – nanobots are tiny machines on the extraordinarily small scale of nanometres – 1nm is about ten times the diameter of a single helium atom. The theory goes that thousands of these tiny entities could work together to repair tissues far faster than the human body would usually allow, or even augment a physical form to be more resistant to a particular environmental stress. While this admittedly sounds like future-fantasy nonsense, we are in the midst of a ‘nanotechnology race’, as the world’s nations strive to successfully create working nanobots first. However, many scientists are worried about the possible ‘grey goo’ doomsday scenario – endless self-replicating tiny machines deconstructing their environment to build more of themselves in an ecophagious orgy.

There exists a rather large movement in the world today known as transhumanism – those that seek to enhance our comparatively fragile and squishy organic bodies via cybernetic augmentation. While we’re still a distance from chest-mounted laser cannons and the like, very small steps are being taken. Subdermal implants containing microprocessors are very much possible, and recently Australian scientists began trials of the world’s first ever bionic fully implantable eye. The Phoenix99, as it is called, aims to restore sight to those afflicted by macular degeneration and Retinitis Pigmentosa, one of the leading causes of blindness in young people, by neural stimulation. If the device works as planned, it could restore sight to around 200 million people across the world.

"leaving behind the shackles of terranean transport and joining the world of the pigeons will truly be an epic moment for mankind"

Invisibility is something I’ve always felt had limited applications beyond spying, but obviously spying being what it is, it has received inordinate amounts of military funding. While many different outfits have chased this holy grail of technologies, the overarching principle seems to be the same – use complex interspersed reflective materials to effectively ‘bend’ light around the object you wish to conceal. However, we are still searching for a way to hide an object in motion – as soon as this hidden element began to move, distortions become clearly visible and the illusion is magnificently ruined.

And finally, the big one – flight. Humans have long-envied the abilities of our avian comrades to soar on the winds and forget our comparatively slow and inefficient bipedal travel. Right at the very end of 2015 we saw the development of the world’s first ‘true’ jetpack – a backpack that provides self-powered flight, with a climb rate of 500ft/minute, and can reportedly provide ten minutes of flight with a peak speed of over 200km/hour. Of course it will be a very long time before gadgets like this ever reach the mass market, and even then I’m sure there will be a speed limit slapped over the skies of New York. Thanks Obama. Even so, leaving behind the shackles of terranean transport and joining the world of the pigeons will truly be an epic moment for mankind.

We’re getting there. On a personal note, I would ask you to consider the social ramifications that face us on the widespread availability of ‘superhuman’ abilities. Social inequality will inevitably get much worse, and the human moral landscape may be forever altered as the playing field becomes more uneven than any time in history.

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