Robopocalypse is set in the near future — a world in which exoskeletons are commonplace. For those of you who don’t know, an exoskeleton is a human-shaped machine that you wear like a suit of armor to augment your natural strength. Exoskeletons have endless applications, mostly medical and military.
Not everybody has one, but prototype exoskeletons exist.In 2008, I ventured to the Berkeley Bionics Corporation in California and allowed researchers there to strap me into a dead-black titanium exoskeleton that suddenly gave me the power to lift 200 lbs like it was nothing.
When I first saw the HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier), it was hanging limply from the ceiling by straps attached to its shoulders, dangling over a treadmill. It had two spindly black legs attached to a backpack with two rectangular batteries on the shoulder blades and an armored computer in the center of its back. Amusingly, it had radiator fins instead of buttocks.
The whole machine looked like a human skeleton. The legs and hips had joints that mimicked the movement of human limbs. In fact, when you strapped your legs into its legs, you could walk, run, kneel, squat, dance, or whatever — the exoskeleton has a range of motion equal to that of a human being. You move, and it moves with you.
I couldn’t wait to try it on.
My first impression: The straps were too big. The HULC was built with military money and was designed for soldiers (not scrawny writers). I yanked the Velcro straps as tight as I could, then strapped my shoes into its open-toed boots. I shrugged on the backpack and clasped the chest strap. The researchers switched it on and HULC stood up — with me inside.
After some practice on the treadmill, I hit the hallway. My gait quickly became less jerky and more fluid. I could even balance on one leg. This was because the machine was learning to anticipate my every move. The exoskeleton was constantly forming a model of how I walk. In other words, it got to know me.
Once my gait cycled a few times, HULC had a complete model. A researcher informed me that from this point onward, the exoskeleton could cycle through my walk all by itself. In fact, I could fall asleep and the exoskeleton would keep walking, dragging my legs through the motions.
Suddenly, I imagined a platoon of snoozing soldiers fast marching non-stop through frigid forests, or a medic using curved exo-arms to scoop up fallen comrades, or a Special Forces soldier in a long-limbed sprinting exoskeleton leaping fallen bridges.
Listening to the mechanical grind of the exoskeleton as I walked, the world of Robopocalypse was almost close enough to taste.
÷ ÷ ÷
Daniel H. Wilson was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and earned a B.S. in computer science from the University of Tulsa and a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He is the author of Robogenesis, Robopocalypse, Amped, How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Where's My Jetpack?, How to Build a Robot Army, The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame, and Bro-Jitsu: The Martial Art of Sibling Smackdown.
Books mentioned in this post
Daniel H. Wilson is the author of Robogenesis