Wednesday, November 21

Screening Science: ‘Upgrade’ hints at potential treatments using AI technology, exoskeleton suits


(Ludi Zhu/Daily Bruin)

(Ludi Zhu/Daily Bruin)


“Upgrade” brings the once novel idea of a Robocop up-to-date with today’s technologies.

Coming out Friday, the film shows mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) surviving a horrendous car crash and witnessing his wife’s murder. After waking up in a hospital as a quadriplegic, Trace is offered a chance to walk again through artificial intelligence technology offered by enigmatic CEO Eron Vessel (Harrison Gilbertson). The technology enhances his body strength, and Trace utilizes his new power to hunt down his wife’s killer.

Whether AI technology should even be used for vigilante justice is an ethical debate best saved for later, but technology in “Upgrade” is not far off from scientific reality. Researchers have recently started using AI technology to alleviate different kinds of disabilities, including paralysis.

In 2017, researchers demonstrated the use of AI in helping patients recover from strokes or spinal cord injuries. Typical therapy treatments involve hours of supported walking and usually don’t take into account individual characteristics such as gait. In contrast, Stem, the AI implant in “Upgrade,” somehow allowed Trace to bypass physical therapy and immediately jump into ninjalike motion to fight off combatants, rendering the film unrealistic.

With the AI-assisted treatment, patients use a robotic harness to practice walking. The harness uses AI to adjust numerous variables, including how much downward or upward force is needed for each patient. In “Upgrade,” Trace doesn’t have a harness and utilizes AI, an idea scientists have considered but not yet attempted.

Because AI technology is nowhere near the level of Stem’s complexity, another potential technology to assist recovery in paralyzed patients is brain-computer interfaces. The interface requires patients to wear a cap that detects electrical signals in the brain, which are transmitted to a computer via wires for processing. The computer then sends the information to an electrode attached to patient’s knee, for instance, which transfers the information to the nearby muscles, causing muscle contractions. Trace from “Upgrade” seemingly possesses brain-computer interfaces with the addition of AI embedded in his entire body. Stem reads Trace’s brain signals and sends the commands to appropriate muscles, completely bypassing the spinal cord. Surprisingly, the feat may possibly be around the corner.

In 2016, researchers created an implant device in paralyzed monkeys that restored movement. In the experiment, monkeys were intentionally paralyzed in their hind legs, but after inserting the implant, the monkeys were able to keep up pace with normal monkeys. The implant recorded electrical signals in the brain and wirelessly transmitted the information to a computer that sent back movement instructions to another part of the implant, causing target muscles to contract.

A more feasible technology to assist people with disabilities is probably exoskeleton suits, which is seen in the “Iron Man” series and “Aliens.” Increasingly more common, exoskeletons enhance the wearer’s strength, allowing people who are paralyzed or infirm to perform tasks like getting up or walking in a circle. A downside of the suits is the cost, with the more affordable options retailing around $30,000. While the suits do look cool in an action or science fiction film, the lack of affordability means most people will not be able to appreciate or utilize the technology.

With their current understanding of AI and the brain, researchers have made significant headway into incorporating AI to relay brain information to legs or arms, bypassing injuries that may have affected the spinal cord or brain-limb communication. However, the likes of an implant in a human, as seen in “Upgrade,” have not moved beyond mere conception.

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