Idris Elba in Fast & Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw
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Credit: Universal Studios

Science Behind the Fiction: How we all might become Idris Elba from Hobbs & Shaw

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Aug 7, 2019

The Fast & Furious franchise has always played fast and loose with physics. Those films are more video games made photoreal than a realistic portrayal of possible human events. But the series took a dramatic turn with the most recent installment, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.

There are some familiar returning characters, specifically the titular characters played by Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, confirming that it does exist in the same continuous universe, but this movie isn't just about driving cars really fast.

In the film, Luke Hobbs (Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Statham) are tasked with working together — despite hating each other — in a sort of odd-couple, buddy-cop pair-up. The stakes are high: A manufactured virus capable of killing half the human population has been lost and our heroes are in a race to find it before Brixton Lore does.

There's only one problem.

Lore, played by Fast & Furious franchise first-timer Idris Elba, isn't your everyday bad guy. He's been cybernetically enhanced, resulting in a stunningly handsome cyborg threat.

 

It might seem like overkill. If anyone could hold their own against Johnson and Statham, it's Idris Elba, but adding the element of cybernetic enhancement ratchets up the threat level.

We're living in wonderful and strange times, and concepts that used to be comfortably relegated to the realm of fiction are becoming reality. A villain like Brixton Lore might have seemed simply cartoonish only a few years ago. And, while Hobbs & Shaw certainly doesn't take itself too seriously, the prospect of bodily enhancement is something we'll all be paying attention to before too long.

Researchers and technologists all over the world are working steadily toward merging our bodies with machines; some even believe it's a necessity if we hope to avoid conflict or irrelevancy in the wake of emerging AI. So, how close are we to becoming the Borg?

COMPUTER BRAIN INTERFACE

Literature has been toying with the prospect and possible repercussions of merging humans with machines for more than a century. Edgar Allen Poe wrote in his 1839 short story "The Man That Was Used Up" of a war hero whose body was destroyed and now must be assembled, piece by piece, from a collection of prostheses. Decades later, Edward Page Mitchell's The Ableist Man in the World told of a computer inserted into a man's head that increases his intelligence. Even the Tin Woodman from The Wizard of Oz is slowly replaced by machinery as parts of his body are cut away by his enchanted ax.

If we hope to bring any of these stories to life (in hopefully less horrifying versions) we must first develop functional brain-computer interfaces. An advanced prosthesis is impressive on its own and an incredible step forward in our ability to restore functionality to impacted individuals. But we can't truly call it "cybernetic" until those individuals can control the prosthesis with their minds in the same way they would a biological limb.

This particular problem is being given a lot of attention by a number of organizations around the world. Neuralink, Facebook, and DARPA, the Pentagon's research and development division, all have projects in the works.

The aim is to create devices capable of reading neural data and translating that into usable information that can accomplish tasks.

 

To some extent, computer-brain interfaces have existed for a long time. Electroencephalograms (EEG) utilize an array of electrodes affixed to the scalp to measure brain activity, relaying that information to a computer. But they aren't very precise and, more importantly, they don't allow the individual being measured to translate that information into action. Usually. Commercial products have taken the technology and stripped it down to its basest elements in order to play a game.

Mindball, designed at the Interactive Institute in Sweden, pits two players against one another to move a ball through a tube using only the power of their thoughts.

Electrodes inside headbands measure alpha and theta waves from the players' brains. These specific wave-types are present when a person is calm. It's an interesting play dynamic. Usually, winning at a game requires skill and precise concentration; in Mindball, the best strategy is to close your eyes and not care.

The trouble is, because of the nature of Mindball, there's no real way to know how accurate the readings are and, owing to the complete lack of controls you'd find in a clinical setting, it's likely they aren't very. Still, it's fun.

If you want to achieve the sorts of results we've read about in our fiction and seen on the big screen, there's only one solution. We have to go deeper, inside the brain itself.

INSIDE THE MIND

That's exactly what the people at BrainGate, a collaboration of researchers from universities, are doing.

They've achieved some success by plugging into people's minds, literally.

The foundation of this work was laid down almost two decades ago; the use of implanted electrodes, known as deep brain stimulation, to treat Parkinson's disease was approved by the FDA in 2002. Since that time, it's been used to treat more than 40,000 people and the list of ailments it can treat has expanded.

In addition to Parkinson's disease, DBS has been used to treat dystonia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and epilepsy. Clinical trials have been carried out to determine its effectiveness in treating chronic pain and affective disorders.

DBS works by implanting a device similar to a pacemaker to deliver constant electrical stimulation to the brain. The level of that electrical stimuli is determined on a patient by patient basis and can be controlled, oddly enough, with an app.

Considering the nearly two-decades of data surrounding DBS, what the people at BrainGate are doing is not exactly a new technology, but what they're doing with it certainly is.

As of 2017, BrainGate had treated a dozen patients to bypass non-functioning parts of their bodies and move computer cursors and real-world objects with their thoughts.

By implanting electrodes directly into the cerebral cortex, a combination of hardware and software interprets a participants intent. It doesn't always work well at first. There is a learning curve while the system is calibrated to the way an individual's brain sends signals, but eventually, they only have to think about what they want to do, and it is done.

 

Actions including moving a cursor on a screen to type and moving a robotic arm have been completed successfully. What the researchers at BrainGate have achieved is a sort of artificial telepathy. They've created a technology capable of quite literally reading someone's thoughts with a measurable degree of accuracy.

Not content to revel in the incredible success they've already achieved, the people at BrainGate continue to push the science forward.

They were able to restore near-normal walking function in a pair of rhesus macaques. Using the same technology responsible for the above video, they were able to decode the signals in the monkeys' brains and bypass spinal injury, allowing them to walk.

INTO THE FUTURE

Given the success of these projects, one can pretty easily project the possible implications down the road. Let's speculate.

Once a sufficient number of people are walking around with computer interfaces in their heads, what's to stop them from talking to one another? If your mind can talk directly to a computer and that computer can talk to an object, then why not another computer or another interface? What's to stop us from communicating with one another directly, mind to mind?

Moreover, there's no reason to suspect this technology will continue to exist as a one-way street, with the computer interpreting signals from the brain. Why not send information the other way, from a computer to the mind?

Such a breakthrough would not only allow individuals to receive information from computers and from the internet, instantaneously, it would also open up the possibility of altering our perception.

If the way we experience reality is simply a matter of the electrical impulses in the brain, couldn't a sufficiently connected computer deliver whatever reality you wanted?

Virtual and augmented reality could do away with the bulky headsets and beam our favorite fictional worlds straight into the theater of the mind. And while we're changing things, we might as well change ourselves.

Additional memory capacity and increased intelligence are a simple matter of upgrading our hardware. If retrieving the information from a computer becomes a matter of course, and that computer exists inside your own body, is there any distinction between it and you?

This might all sound like a whole lot of science fiction nonsense, and maybe it is, but respected futurists like Ray Kurzweil don't think so. Though he may be a little off on the date, that remains to be seen.

In any event, the marriage of humans and their machines is here, for better or worse, so we better get used to it.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is in theaters now.

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