Monday, July 13, 2009

SMORGASBORG #2: Exoskeletons part A


In the field of Biomechatronics(1) the integration of man and machine can be achieved through internal or external body/machine interfaces. Exploration of internal interfaces between the nervous, muscular, and other body systems are represented in movies like Terminator Salvation and Star Trek: First Contact, where living flesh encases machinery(2). We'll look at some aspects of internal interfaces in future posts.

You'll recall from SMORGASBORG #1 that my gauge for a cyborg is "some kind of sensory and/or motor interface between the man (or biological tissues) and his machine parts. This involves the exchange of data and of energy. This relationship between two independent systems (man and machine in the case of the movies we will look at) is a dynamic one, where each influence the other."(3)

Claudia Mitchell with a new prosthetic arm.
This one's real, folks!

This criterion for cyborgism means that a person wearing a truly biomechatronic exoskeleton, whether invasive or not, could fit the model of a cyborg. One can also be provided sensory and motor interfaces that are non-invasive. A person can be encased (all the way or partially) in an exoskeletal structure that provides feedback to the wearer. Cybernetic devices could be directed through physical manipulation, voice commands, or in some cases, thought commands. Electrodes and other types of sensors can read nervous impulses and brain waves via contact with the skin. Sensory information can be provided to the user of the device through skin contact, aurally, and visually.

Lobster attacked by a baby
(Thank you, Bill Rahner, for the photo!)

I have read (and heard) the exoskeletal construction of a cyborg described as a "lobster." It's an appropriate nickname if you think about it. This type of cyborg has a hard outer shell and a tender, juicy middle. Makes you want to throw Iron Man, live, into a big pot of boiling water, cook him up, then crack him out of his shell and eat him with melted butter. The more I think about dipping Robert Downey Jr. into melted butter, the more I like the "lobster" thing.

Mr. Downey as Tony Stark. Too much eye liner.

Iron Man, Matrix Revolutions, and Aliens fulfill the model of the exoskeleton with greater and lesser degrees of technological finesse. Stark is encased entirely in his "power suit" (power suit?!?!), has a visual, and probably a tactile, interface, and talks to Jarvis (a computer of artificial intelligence) through his suit, to give commands and request information. In Matrix, the Armored Personnel Unit is an exoskeletal weapon. There is direct communication with the external environment. It's a big walking gun with a person in it. Captain Mifune goes down in one while battling the machines (Sentinels? I forget what they're called). It's a good fight scene.

Nathanael Lees as Captain Mifune

In Aliens, Ripley(4) makes herself the crudest cyborg of all. Much of her body is exposed. Her exosuit cargo loader is, well, a cargo loader, it has buttons and levers. Ripley uses it as a weapon. It's not clear in the film if she is provided with any feedback from the suit, or if information travels only from her to it. She does walk in the suit, which I think would require some type of feedback mechanism in order to maintain balance, but I'm not a biomechanic.

If we take this lobster-as-cyborg imagery too far, anyone in a car might be encased in an exoskeleton, and therefore a cyborg. I'm not willing to go there. Another feature that may disqualify these characters from being true cyborgs is that they can remove themselves from their casings at any time. On the other hand, I haven't read anything that decrees Once a Cyborg, Always a Cyborg.

Next time we look at exoskeletons, prosthetics, and some real life applications for a power suit.

1. Biomechatronics is an interdisciplinary field that combines robotics, neuroscience, "interface and sensory technology, and dynamic systems and control theory," whatever they are. The objective of biomechatronics is to create implements that interact with the body in order to restore it to mechanical function, or enhance its function. Biomechatronics - Assisting the Impaired Motor System, by P.H. Vletnik, et. al. is a fascinating read on this topic. The article is from the Archives of Physiology and Biochemistry 2001, Vol. 109, No 1, pp. 1-9. If you don't have access to the right database (hmmm, grad school has its advantages), you can purchase it through Pub Med, if you're inclined.
2. Of course, each movie has its own set of rules. In Star Trek it is revealed the Borg cannot survive without their fleshy parts, no matter how seemingly small a percentage of the Borg body is flesh. This is a major plot point regarding how the crew of the Enterprise overcome a Borg invasion. In contrast are the cybernetic organisms in the Terminator series, who lose their flesh and keep on going.
3. Cripes! Now I'm quoting myself!
4. Another actor to consider dipping in butter.

Friday, July 3, 2009

SMORGASBORG #1: What is a cyborg?

Yes, We is the new Queen of the Borg. As a Borg, We don't need glasses, but as the Queen, We thought it might help people take Us seriously.

Working on the Terminator Salvation posts generated some interesting conversation in my household over the following days. I've become curious about that meat/metal interface, what it takes to make a cyborg, how cyborgs are portrayed in the movies, and what a cyborg is and is not.

What is a cyborg? It depends who you ask. Some sources say a cyborg is anyone who uses a tool to enhance sensory input, or improve physical mechanics of the body. By that definition, eyeglasses, hearing aids, canes, crutches, and prosthetics have been making cyborgs of us for centuries(1). Other sources are more stringent in their definitions, and yet others seem to confuse terms like robot, android, and cyborg.

Cyborg, or Kindle?

Cyborg, or Kindle?

Language can get confusing. A Kindle covered in a leather casing is not a cyborg even though it resembles, on a crude level, the Terminator. Why is the Kindle not a cyborg? Because it is not encased in living tissue (just dead tissue), according to the definition used in The Terminator movies. My husband, the cartoonist, is crushed of course, because he was hoping we could buy a cyborg from

Patrick Parrinder wrote a great historical survey of cyborgian literature and presents his own set of definitions, which I've paraphrased and embellished here(2).

Robot is the English version of the Czech robota, basically meaning "forced labor". This label can be applied to machines, which take the place of human workers. Examples of robots from film include V-Ger (Star Trek the Motion Picture), the Gunslinger (Westworld), and don't forget the autobots and decepticons (Transformers)!
The Gunslinger, looking like Yule Brenner

Android, meaning "manlike," was first used in 1727. The term is currently used to mean artificial human beings of organic substance. Replicants (Blade Runner) belong to this category.
Sean Young as Rachel-the-Replicant

Cyborg is a contraction of "cybernetic organism," which is how the Terminator labels itself. Cyborgs are constructed through surgical extension. They are not born, they are made. Some sources(3) say that a basic principle of cybernetics requires some kind of sensory and/or motor interface between the man (or biological tissues) and his machine parts. This involves the exchange of data and of energy. This relationship between two independent systems (man and machine in the case of the movies we will look at) is a dynamic one, where each influences the other.

The requirement of interface between the human and the artificial body part gives us a good base from which to look at cyborgs in the movies, so let's include this in our definition of cyborgs.

1. The Terminator series: The Terminator itself (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and Marcus (Sam Worthington) from Terminator Salvation.

2. Star Trek: First Contact: The Borg
The Borg Queen, before my reign.

3. Cyborg: Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon)
Little Pearl

4. The RoboCop series: RoboCop (Peter Weller). Oops! Picture gaff! We'll see him later...

5. I, Robot: Del Spooner (Will Smith) could qualify as a cyborg because he has a prosthetic arm that obviously has sensory and motor feedback systems that interact with his private parts (nervous system, musculature, etc.).
Spooner and his miracle arm

6. Iron Man: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) when he dons his "power suit." Power suit?!?
Iron Man

7. The Matrix Revolutions: Anyone wearing an Armored Personnel Unit.

8. Aliens: Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) when she is wearing the exosuit cargo loader to battle the Alien Queen. Weak, I know, but I'll make my point next time.

Ripley suited up

I know what your thinking... You're wondering how I, Robot, Iron Man, Aliens, and Matrix Revolutions qualify as cyborg movies. Next time, we look at exoskeletons and cyborgs.

1. Someone should make a movie about Benjamin Franklin, the cyborg: struck by lightning while wearing glasses, the electrical charge fuses them to his head (and brain) and gives him super-human vision...
2. Robots, Clones and Clockwork Men: The Post-Human Perplex in Early Twentieth-Century Literature and Science. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 34 No. 1, March, 2009 pp. 56-67. You can purchase this article online if you're into the history of science fiction literature (or even if you're not).
3. Vanishing senses -- restoration of sensory functions by electronic implants. Rosahl, Steffen K. Poiesis & Praxis; may 2004, Vol. 2 Issue 4, pp 285-295. An excellent overview of what it means to enable the body with a sensory and/or motor interface. You can purchase this article through this link, or just check out the abstract.