The only thing holding me back from being a cyborg — aside from cost, science, a robo-averse girlfriend, and a fear of being stared at — is the fact that once you go bot, you probably can’t go back. I like being flesh and blood, even if my old sack of bones can be frustratingly, fickly human sometimes. But there’s still something alluring about the idea of being some sort of mechanical boss man. I want to be Terminator, but just not all the time.
Thanks to one Japanese scientist — and his absolutely perfectly named company, Cyberdyne — being Terminator is a (rental-only) reality. In 2008, Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai showcased his powered exoskeleton, dubbed HAL, for Hybrid Assisted Limb. Yes, that’s a HAL produced by Cyberdyne. Sankai has a wild sense of humor.
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He’s also a master of interfacing man with machine. With robotic limbs that strap to one’s arms and legs, the HAL exoskeleton moves according to the thoughts of its wearer. Muscle movements are based on nerve signals sent from the brain to the muscles – signals that are registered in very weak traces on the surface of the skin. HAL identifies these signals using a sensor, and sends a signal to the suit’s power unit – a backpack containing a battery and computer controller – moving the robotic limbs along with the human limbs.
The result is relatively seamless mechanical assistance for everyone from the elderly or disabled to car-tossing enthusiasts. It was also apparently a hit with numerous militaries, although Sankai has remained tight-lipped. But it’s all the same to Sankai, to whom HAL simply represents a part of the human effort to “take part in their own evolution.” And what happens when machines begin to evolve intelligence and strength faster than humans? “We would try to catch up and that would not be the best scenario. We must be cautious of the relationship between robots and humans in the future.”
In 2009, Motherboard took a trip to Tokyo to pay a visit to Dr. Sankai and Cyberdyne. What we found wasn’t a robo-overlord like something out of B-anime; instead, we were luck to meet a friendly, bright mind interested in pushing humans forward into a future that just might be influenced by the movies. But when it comes to wearable robotic suits, that’s the best inspiration you could ask for.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.