E. Paul Zehr


On his book Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine

Cover Interview of November 25, 2011

The wide angle

Using the Iron Man suit (if it existed) would require a technological interface bridging the gap between our nervous systems and devices like computers and robots. Let’s say that was possible…what happens then?

A lot of really bizarre things, actually. In Inventing Iron Man I give the example of plasticity in brain maps for the body muscles and skin areas. It is well known that after traumatic injuries like limb amputations other brain regions can take up the function of areas not in use because the body part is missing. This “remapping” is a really extreme example of neural plasticity—the reshaping of nervous system connections due to changes in activity.

This brings up the idea of what would happen when using a device like the Iron Man armor.

But there is a huge difference between thinking about how the brain remaps when something is lost and what happens to an intact nervous system. Someone using the armor hasn’t had an amputation and there isn’t anything missing. There is no brain territory to remap. So where does the armor go? I ask in one section “Is there space in Shellhead’s brain to store a skin of iron?” I phrase it as a funny question but the truth is, we don’t know. This is not a natural event, interfacing with machines and computers. We have no clear understanding of the long term effects of such interfacing.

This last bit is important if we take this line of thinking to its eventual conclusion—long term integration of computers, machines, and human minds. What would it do to the biological human connected to the technology? Where does human end and machine begin? What does it mean for being human, not just for human beings?

My main motivation behind writing the book was my continued passion for the popularization of science. I had some success using Batman as a popular culture icon for illustrating human biology. A lot of Becoming Batman helped satisfy the kinesiology part of my personality. Now I wanted to more specifically address my inner (and outer) neuroscientist!

I think many of the issues raised in Inventing Iron Man are important because they can help people understand how their brains work and why they work that way. And the vast mysteries that remain about how their bodies work. We all use technology routinely and we are rapidly converging on a point where we have to have a fundamental change in how we connect to the tech. Inventing Iron Man provides some answers and also raises some probing questions related to all these.