- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Eighty years after Superman arrived on Earth, Bruce Wayne first donned his cowl and Steve Rogers transformed into Captain America, the boundless imagination once confined to the pages of popular comic books has become a bottomless well of inspiration to real-life military researchers around the world.

The cutting-edge science and otherworldly gadgets that have been integral to the rise of iconic American superheroes — and helped fuel their unprecedented success at the box office and fan conventions over the past two decades — can no longer be considered purely science fiction, insiders and analysts say.

The most recent example: an Iron Man-inspired, jetpack-powered exoskeleton that has caught the eye of military leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Pentagon officials say the idea as they originally envisioned has been tabled, but Britain’s defense chief recently marveled at the technology and spoke publicly about how it would aid his soldiers in combat.

“It’s fantastic,” U.K. Defense Minister Gavin Williamson said this month after seeing a demonstration of the suit, which is under development by the British firm Gravity Industries.

Should it come to pass, the Iron Man suit would join a growing list of superhero-inspired weapons, vehicles and artificial-intelligence-driven equipment seemingly pulled straight from the pages of comic books. The technology ranges from the practical — exoskeleton-style armor, unmanned tanks, a new generation of night-vision goggles and Batmobile-style patrol vehicles — to the unbelievable, including gene editing research that eventually could form the foundation of a new breed of “supersoldier.”



While many of the wildest products remain firmly in the research and development phase, analysts argue that human engineering has progressed to a level where the line between fantasy and reality is being adjusted on a near-daily basis.

“What’s happened now is the technology has actually caught up to the thought,” said E. Paul Zehr, a neuroscientist and biomedical research scholar at Canada’s University of Victoria.

Mr. Zehr authored the books “Inventing Iron Man,” “Chasing Captain America” and other works examining how the science in popular comic books — and the weapons wielded by superheroes — could eventually come to life.

Central to the sweeping advances, he said, is that many of the minds behind today’s scientific breakthroughs were exposed to the endless ambition and innovation in comics from an early age, resulting in a 21st-century intersection of technology and growing freedom to think outside the box.

“We’re the ones who read all the comic books when we were growing up. All the engineers, all the scientists, all these folks were the main target audience for these things in the first place,” Mr. Zehr said. “The connectivity of things, the idea of machine learning, advances in carbon fiber versus titanium, and all of these different things that have happened in every field of science and technology, it’s finally caught up with the vision people had of what you can do with this stuff.”

The future of war

Comic inspiration can be seen across the military and security landscape.

Last year, Israeli firm Plasan began marketing its Yagu battle buggy, which is reminiscent of the Tumbler-style Batmobile used by the “Caped Crusader” in the “Batman Begins” film and its sequels. The vehicle has been marketed as an especially effective tool to patrol borders.

Militaries around the globe also have invested in research into X-ray vision technology, potentially allowing troops to see through walls before entering hostile or uncertain situations.

Last decade, the U.S. military and domestic law enforcement experimented with “sticky foam” and “webbing” technology, with specific products seemingly pulled straight from Spider-Man stories.

The most high-profile comic-inspired project in recent years is the U.S. military’s Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, the exoskeleton project that drew immediate comparisons to Tony Stark’s virtually impenetrable yet highly functional Iron Man armor for Marvel Comics. The TALOS, as originally conceived, had some similarities to the Gravity Industries suit on display in the United Kingdom this month.

But U.S. Special Operations Command officials say the exoskeleton itself remains impractical and the technology is simply not ready for combat.

Although the full Iron Man suit hasn’t materialized, parts of the underlying research are bearing fruit. One of the potential spinoffs bears similarities to the gadgetry made famous by the Iron Man comics and Marvel film franchise.

A project known as the “hyper-enabled operator” system — in some ways reminiscent of the in-suit communication console that Tony Stark uses as Iron Man — ultimately could project real-time data into helmets or goggles worn by American service members in hot spots around the world.

Military officials say the research is aimed at giving special operations forces as much information as possible but doing so in a way that doesn’t become overwhelming or distracting.

“The hyper-enabled operator concept emerged from our need to embrace our future operating environment,” Col. Alex MacCalman, TALOS director, told The Washington Times. “The HEO concept is intended to focus on cognition at the edge — the dismounted [special operations] professional operating at the edge in a contested environment or denied area, empowered by technologies that enhance performance by increasing situational awareness, reducing cognitive load and accelerating decision-making.

“Today’s technology produces exceptional amounts of data and information that can be processed, delivered to special operators at the right time to affect the outcome of an operation,” he said.

Still, implementing such technology will require much more research and funding.

Comic books may provide the inspiration, but analysts say the only way such ambitious projects ever come to fruition is with the right investments of money, time, brainpower and commitment from military researchers and outside firms.

“While technology can provide the raw materials for military revolutions, those revolutions must ultimately be sparked by entrepreneurship and organizational adaptation,” Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon wrote last fall in a comprehensive report on military technology. “This was true historically, as with the inventions or transformations of the blitzkrieg, integrated air defense, aircraft carrier operations, amphibious assault, anti-submarine warfare systems, and the atomic bomb in the 1930s and 1940s. It remains true today.”

Moral questions

With the advent of comic-book-style technology comes a host of moral questions. Analysts say navigating those questions could prove as difficult as the nuts and bolts of research and production. The hyper-enabled operator suit, for example, ultimately could incorporate artificial intelligence to aid special operations fighters in the field.

A form of artificial intelligence that is able to analyze data and funnel it to humans in combat situations could represent a major step forward for militaries.

But as that technology evolves, analysts say, the prevalence of comic books and science fiction films in 21st-century society could fuel irrational fears among the public.

“A lot of our thinking about the threats of AI [and] the challenges they present are scoped around those movies, which is the wrong way to go about it,” said Jia Xu, senior engineer and associate director of the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center at the Rand Corp. “Because the movies are made for entertainment value, they’re not necessarily made for substantive discussion of the issues. They may give us the wrong mental model and expectations when it comes to novel technologies.”

Beyond artificial intelligence are even thornier ethical questions.

Late last year, Defense One reported on Naval Research Laboratory work on a host of “engineered organisms” to aid in warfare. One project investigated genetically modifying sea organisms so they react to the presence of divers or vessels, potentially providing clues to the presence of an enemy.

Other work focuses on “living camouflage” that can react and adapt to its surroundings, along with other ambitious, expensive, long-term projects at U.S. military research facilities.

Although it may sound like pure fantasy, some analysts argue that governments eventually could use genetic modifications to produce enhanced soldiers — similar to the origin story of Captain America.

In the more immediate future, scholars expect some form of human-AI combination. In the case of the Tony Stark-style interface, the most effective way to field such technology would be to connect the machine to the human brain, said Mr. Zehr, the analyst at the University of Victoria.

“Have the command come right from your brain. You want that going directly into the suit,” he said. “If you really want this stuff to work, you have to integrate it to the person somehow.”

Taken to its logical conclusion, such technology theoretically could allow enemies to hack into human brains.

“If you’re making a system which has software and hardware, which has you as the user connect to the device — like an Iron Man suit — it also means the suit is connected to you,” Mr. Zehr said. “If you do something to hack the suit itself, it’s actually going to hack the user.”

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