July 01, 2007

Posthuman Hypervelocity

Hypervelocity.jpgSuperhero comics are really about worshipping power. Not political or any other social power, but the futurist thrill of enormous strength, speed and magnitude. To give a chance for the superheros and villains to exert their power some form of plot may be necessary, but the nuclear heart of superhero stories is still seeing individuals do things far outside the human range.

Iron Man: Hypervelocity is a great example of this, and intesting as a mainstream admittance of the posthuman (in a transhumanist sense) to the Marvel universe.

The basic plot is relatively straightforward: Tony Stark's latest version of the Iron Man super-armor has gone rogue (again) and SHIELD is trying to stop it. The twist is that this version of the armor contains a simulated version of Stark. Hypervelocity is true technoporn, enthusiastically introducing scramjet hypersonic air-to-air missiles, the (correct) equation for kinetic energy, stealth drones, hypertelescopes, pseudo-autism as cognition enhancement and other more or less plausible devices. Just as traditional pornography tries to produce supernormal stimuli rather than an accurate depiction of eroticism this piles up an endless stream of explosive toys. It is delightful, if you have the right technophiliac tendencies.

Spoilers below fold.

To me the really interesting thing was to see how transhumanist concepts seem to be sneaking into the established cartoon universes. There has certainly been physical and mental enhancements, robots and nanotech-like tech around for decades, but it has always conformed to the unwritten rule: at the end of the story, the status quo is more or less back. The supersoldier serum only worked on one person or cannot be reproduced, the robots will only occur within the labs of the geniuses and the existence of AI doesn't revolutionize the world. But as Tony Stark 2.0 observes:

"... the sudden emergence of tachycognitive posthuman intelligence is almost certain to proce catastrophic to SHIELD's interests. "Fast forward darwinism" won't favor the meatminded, whether they wear capes and masks or not ... or the fact that a mere beta upload like myself needed only a few hours to break the human-equivalent cognitive clockspeed barrier. Given a few more hours, I might well bootstrap myself to functional Godhood. It is highly probably that Tony 1.0 will be waking up to a very different world."

While I doubt these ideas will be taken up by the Marvel universe (Thor having to deal with functional soups or Reed Richards outthought by evolutionary algorithms in self-reproducing computronium doesn't sell many comics) it is an interesting sign of how the more advanced ideas of transhumanism are spreading. It is relatively easy to spread the concept for a cool technology, but much harder to spread the non-trivial consequences of it. Transhumanism may be a few iterations ahead again, but the mainstream is catching up. Soon people will be onto the raving alife, AIs and uploads and the possibility of a species transition.

To quibble a bit, it is of course very debatable whether higher cognitive clockspeed would give that much extra superintelligence or a great ability to fight. Assuming that Tony Stark 2.0 optimizes the parallelisation of his brain simulation he will at best gain in speed, not intelligence. Having more time to think through things is certainly useful as a number of scenes show, but it doesn't help acting faster - there is a limit to how quickly limbs can be moved even if the brain behind them is fast enough. You might see the bullet, but getting your fingers to the right place and applying enough pressure to deflect it would require a ridiculously fast and strong body[*] - and nothing in the way. Given that the water doesn't turn into superheated steam by the shockwaves when Iron Man moves this doesn't seem possible. Having a superfast mind is more useful if you have a smaller, faster body.

But Tony 2.0's godhood might have to wait for a while since even having tremendous speed doesn't mean it is easy to improve the intelligence of the brain simulation. Brains are messy things and unlikely to become significantly smarter just because you add extra cortex (otherwise we would see much bigger cognitive differences between people with larger and smaller brains, not to mention men and women): you need to improve the bottlenecks of intelligence, and likely find ways of interfacing the cognitive system to other systems. Not that I doubt for a millisecond that the cartoon engineer couldn't do it if the plot required it. In reality it is likely to be far messier and require a lot of trial and error, which tends to take significant amounts of time.

Another interesting point was the information exchange going on between the various techno-players in the Marvel world. Stark admits that he had been copying designs from defeated high-tech enemies, and it looks like everybody is doing it. Given the somewhat absurd R&D paradigm of comics this makes sense: individuals can be decades ahead of others, so by plundering several lairs you could easily acquire a fantastic technological advantage. Maybe we should be happy this isn't true in the real world, or silicon valley would be a battlefield.

[*] Assuming that Iron Man pushes a bullet aside rather than try to catch it (which would require pretty extreme shear forces to transfer its momentum to the suit), he has to push it with force F to the side so that it misses his head (assumed to have radius r) during the time it travels from his maximum arm extension L to zero distance. If the speed is v we get r = (0.5 F/m)(L/v)^2 where m is the bullet mass. This gives a required force of F = 2rmv^2/L^2. For a bullet mass of 0.4 kg travelling at 965 m/s and L=1 m and r=0.1 m we get F = 74,498 N. That corresponds to lifting 7.5 tons - not unreasonable for Iron Man, but pretty unlikely in reality. The cool ultrarailgun bullet is likely travelling much faster. Lets assume the same mass (I must admit I have no idea how much an adamantium-core penetrator weighs) and a mere 2500 m/s (corresponding to current plans, not cartoon physics). Then we need 500,000 N, which corresponds to lifting 51 tons. If the speed is 6000 m/s (again doable by current prototypes and likely closer to what might happen in comics) Iron Man need to push with 2,880,000 N, i.e. lift about 300 tons. It is starting to sound unlikely that even the hypervelocity armor can do that (according to this page its strength is about 80 tons and according to this 50 tons, although external power could bring it up to over 100 tons). It is smarter to duck.

Speed kills, gentlemen.

Posted by Anders3 at July 1, 2007 06:40 PM