On Saturday night, my fiancee and I watched Elysium–the new sci-fi blockbuster featuring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and one or two other people. The word on the street is that Elysium carries a message about social disparity. It does, in an over-the-top and in-your-face manner. Personally, I think the “message” would be a little more impactful if it was a lot more subtle and nuanced. Anyway, enough about the social satire aspect, I want to talk about the technology of Elysium.
At one point, Matt Damon’s character puts on an exoskeleton suit and proceeds through some merry bad-guy pulverization. The powered exoskeletons depicted in the film are not that far from reality. Already, several companies have working prototypes of such suits. All that is really needed for the movie exoskeletons to become reality is the development of compact, mobile, and powerful power supplies to power the suits.
Cylindrical Surveillance Drones
At another point in the film, Matt Damon’s character is hunted down by nearly flat, cylindrical, unmanned, surveillance drones that look like miniature flying saucers. This technology could already be out there. Think a quadcopter in a cylindrical housing.
The police/military robots in Elysium were very human-like in their behavior and fighting tactics. They didn’t have faux human hair or skin (i.e. they were obviously robots), so it’s not like their anthropomorphism was designed so they could be passed off as human. What then was the point of having them fight like measly humans? If the military develops fully autonomous fighting robots, I don’t think they will do uppercuts or roundhouse kicks. If they have appendages, they won’t be arms and legs, they will be guns, bone saws, and other more effective fighting limbs.
When fighting another human, it is reasonable to assume that decapitating him will result in the immediate cessation of all attempts to kill you. Not so with murderous robots. When Matt Damon’s character tore the head off of a military robot, I couldn’t help but wonder why he assumed the the robot’s computer and sensors were all located in its head.
Quite a few companies are working on human-like bipedal robots, and a few of them have build pretty amazing prototypes. The possibility of seeing them on the battlefield in the coming decades is not out of the question. However, I don’t think modeling them after humans would make the most effective killing machines.
In Elysium, Matt Damon’s character uses a gun that fires explosive rounds. Better than that, the rounds explode at a preprogrammed distance, making it possible to take out enemy soldiers even when he doesn’t have direct line-of-sight. Possible? Done! Yes, I know it’s scary.
Airborne Machine Guns
One of the bad guys in Elysium pecks at the good guys with a pair of rather boring machine guns on his space-capable shuttlecraft. They should have used something more impressive–something truly terrifying–like the M134 Minigun. I shiver every time I watch a video of that thing in action.
The best tech of the film is, of course, the giant wheel of a space station. Artificial gravity is generated by the slow spinning of the wheel. Good so far. The ‘coolest’ aspect of the station is the open-to-space atmosphere. This allows shuttles from Earth to land right in the middle of grassy lawns on Elysium. Amazing, yes, but is it possible? I am not a physicist (yet), but I have my doubts about the viability of such an atmosphere.
Wouldn’t the solar wind blast the atmosphere away? Well, not necessarily. The station isn’t that far from Earth so it’s probably within the protection of Earth’s magnetic field.
On Earth, gravity keeps our atmosphere wrapped tightly around the planet. Elysium has gravity too, but it’s a fake gravity. It’s not the gravity caused by mass, rather it’s a pseudo-gravity caused by centripetal force (the spinning of the space station). Would this fake gravity be sufficient to keep the station’s atmosphere on the station? Would inertia and friction be enough to keep all that atmosphere from dissipating into space? To be honest, I don’t know.
Another potential problem is ultraviolet radiation. On Earth, our ozone layer protects us from the majority of the sun’s UV rays. Unfortunately, the Elysium creators can’t just inject a shitload (yes, that’s a scientific measure of volume) of ozone into their atmosphere because that stuff is pretty harmful to plants and animals. Earth’s ozone layer is many miles above the surface, so there’s no worry about breathing it in, but Elysium’s atmosphere is not deep at all. The people on Elysium could live without the protection of an ozone layer. All they would have to do is hop into their fancy medical scanners every few hours to get rid of their nasty sunburns. The plants, on the other hand, wouldn’t have that luxury.
Given current science, I think a lot of the tech depicted in Elysium is doable within decades. Some exceptions would be the medical tech and the shuttle propulsion. I’m not sure how those could be accomplished within the next 150 years, but of course that’s no reason to throw it out of science fiction.
All in all, I think Elysium is a pretty decent sci-fi movie. The storyline isn’t even close to the utter greatness of something like Star Trek (not the recent movie, I hated it), but it’s a good depiction of some of the technology that humanity is on the verge of developing.
Have you seen Elysium? If so, what did you think of it?