“Undergoing the Extremis Procedure remade my body from the inside out. Long story short, my body was turned into a kind of computer designed to interface with the Iron Man. There was no longer a division between me and the suit. My brain . . . evolved, I guess. Into a kind of hard drive.”

  • Tony Stark, in the story “Godspeed” (Invincible Iron Man #9, 2009)

    Warren Ellis called Iron Man our “test pilot for the future”. As I wrote in “Inventing Iron Man—The Possibility of a Human Machine”, Iron Man’s origin story has some very plausible bits to it right now. A central issue is this: if the Iron Man suit of armor actually existed, how could you link it up to a human body and control it?

    That means thinking about Iron Man as a neuroprosthetic—the most advanced and complicated brain-machine interface ever created seamlessly integrating information transfer in the nervous system. When it comes to your brain, spinal cord and peripheral nervous system you have sensory and motor signals moving around as rapidly as 180 to 220 miles per hour!

    Your nervous system is busy integrating all these signals on a millisecond timescale, produces changes on a timescale of 10s and 100s of milliseconds, which are perceived second-by-second. To effectively pilot and use and Iron Man suit of armor, you’d have to have your nervous system directly meshed with the suit itself.

    Man—or woman—and machine would need to truly be one. Current brain-machine interfaces with the highest fidelity usually are based on implanting arrays of electrodes into the brain itself. The basic concept for Iron Man would be to surgically implant electrode arrays into the brain and the spinal cord and then used to control the Iron Man suit. But this would require rather a large number of implants into the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nervous system.

    Sensation is fundamental to life and it is critical to get as much as possible to train and use the Iron Man suit. Beginning while you were still in utero, your nervous system began to calibrate the sensory and motor inputs within your brain. This calibration creates loose “maps” of the body in the sensory and motor parts of the brain that contributes to our sense of self, body “image”, and body “schema”.

    Sensory maps of our biological bodies can be reshaped to incorporate the functional way we use tools in a process called “embodiment”. This process reflects the plasticity your nervous system experiences to keep you fully functional. Which is why, if your name is Anthony Edward Stark, you would need lots of sensory feedback from the Iron Man suit of armor to use it seamlessly.

    My view of Iron Man is very similar to the “Extremis” armor that Warren Ellis and Adi Granov created. Extremis represents an embedded interface between the nervous system and a highly modular armor. In broad strokes, this is really the only way it could work. But if such an ultimate brain-machine interface existed could such a “tool” be incorporated into the bodily representation in a real human brain?

    Incorporating a prosthetic limb or exoskeleton into the user’s brain requires sensors and feedback. So the Iron Man suit of armor should have sensors on the fingers, hands, toes, and so on that would normally be activated on Tony Stark’s body. These would activate brain areas that normally get that sensation from the real fingers! Using this approach, Tony would embody Iron Man like he declared by saying “the suit of Iron Man and I are one” in Iron Man 2.

    In real life science sensory feedback increases learning for brain-machine interface. In 2010, Aaron Suminski, Nicholas Hatsopoulos, and colleagues at the University of Chicago used a “sleeve” placed over a monkey’s arm to help improve learn how to move a cursor on a computer screen driven by recording activity in motor cortex. Using visual and somatosensory feedback together the monkeys learned how to control the cursor much faster and more accurately than without those sensations.

    In 2011, a research team at the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering headed by Miguel Nicolelis, a pioneer and leader in the area of brain machine interface, trained two monkeys using brain activity to control and move a virtual hand.

    The critical piece in this experiment—and a requirement for functional training with the fictional Iron Man exoskeleton—was that electrical activation in both the sensory and motor parts of the brains were used. Motor signals were used to drive the controller and then feedback was given directly into the brain by stimulating the sensory cortex when the monkeys made accurate movements. This advance actually provides patterns of electrical stimulation to the brain that mimic sensory inputs in movement.

    This is really asking what happens when you take tool use—where the Iron Man suit of armor is the tool—to the extreme. This area of research continues to expand at a breath taking pace. Something to chew on—along with your popcorn—while you enjoy Iron Man 3.

    Our test pilot for the future has arrived.