If you’re into sci-fi flicks or gadget-laden espionage thrillers, you’ve already seen numerous speculative glimpses of how technological breakthroughs might change humanity in the future.
From powered exoskeletons to electronically augmented senses and memory manipulation, movies are full of amazing ways to enhance heroes’ and villains’ abilities as well as provide plot twists. But many of these screenwriting inventions bear at least some resemblance either to advances that are being developed, or ones that prognosticators expect that we, or generations to come, will have at our disposal. Here is a list of movies that contain some intriguing possibilities.
Dr. No (1962): James Bond flicks often contain a sci-fi element, and here it’s the villain identified in the title, who sports a pair of crushingly powerful mechanical hands that he keeps hidden inside black gloves. Today, researchers have developed far more sophisticated prosthetic hand that can perform precise movements.
Charly (1968): In this film, based upon a novel by Daniel Keyes, a mentally-disabled man, portrayed by Cliff Robertson, undergoes a brain operation that artificially enhances his IQ. Nearly 50 years later, futurists still contemplate ways to amplify human intelligence.
The Terminal Man (1974): A man, played by (actor George Segal) undergoes surgery in which tiny computers are implanted into his brain to control his violent impulses—but instead, he only becomes more brutal, due to his belief that machines are taking over the world. Today, government-funded research actually is trying to find a way to use implants to control the emotions of mentally ill people.
Altered States (1980): In this thriller, a scientist, portrayed by (William Hurt), probes his own brain with hallucinogenic substances and sensory deprivation, and ends up bizarrely altering himself physiologically as well as mentally. The film was in part inspired by the real-life inventor of the sensory deprivation tank, neuroscientist John C. Lilly, though he never turned himself into an ape-like creature, as Hurt’s character does.
Robocop (1987): A seriously wounded policeman(played by Peter Weller) is saved by doctors who implant what’s left of him into a robotic body, creating a cyborg lawman, who is guided by a blend of computerized logic and human intuition. Real researchers already have discovered how to control prosthetic limbs with thoughts.
Total Recall (1990): An ordinary man (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) dreams of escaping his dull job by having artificial memories of a trip to Mars encoded into his brain. He soon has difficulty telling the difference between whether what seems to be happening to him actually is real or implanted fiction. Scientists already have demonstrated the ability to alter memories in a mouse’s brain.
The Matrix (1999): This thriller, the first in a trilogy, tells the story of a 22nd Century uprising against a computer network that has imprisoned humans in a virtual reality illusion. In our real world, Wired magazine predicts that virtual reality technology is poised to transform the world even more radically than the Web did.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): This is another movie that contemplates the effects of altering memories, as a former couple, played by (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet,) have their painful memories of one another erased. While that premise may seem far-fetched, some neuroscientists already are exploring the possibility of using drugs to wipe out bad memories. Johns Hopkins University researchers, for example, have looked at using protein-blocking drugs to weaken neural connections that are forged by traumas. Dutch neuroscientist Marijn Kroes and colleagues have used electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to target and disrupt experimental subjects’ memories of upsetting events as they tried to recall them.
Iron Man (2008): Robert Downey, Jr. portrays a billionaire industrialist and inventor who develops a high-tech suit of armor with fantastic powers. Real inventors are working on powered exoskeletons, and also on using holograms to project information in a person’s field of vision, just like Iron Man’s helmet does.
Inception (2010): In this suspenseful film, a future brain-hacker for hire portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio takes on the task of surreptitiously implanting an idea for a business deal into a sleeping person’s brain. Real scientists haven’t yet been able to pull off that trick, but they are figuring how the brain forms new connections between neurons.