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The superhero Iron Man is shown in a scene from the film "Iron Man 2." Real-life robotic exoskeleton suits such as those used by the comic-book hero may be developed within 30 years, according to University of Victoria neuroscientist. (Marvel Entertainment/Paramount Pictures)

High-tech robotic suits, similar to the one portrayed in the 2008 Hollywood blockbuster Iron Man, could become a reality within 30 years, says a University of Victoria neuroscientist.

Paul Zehr said while the technology will have practical benefits, like helping people with spinal-cord injuries walk, it will also have military applications, too.

So Zehr, the author of the just-released book Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine, said now's the time to talk about the practical and moral implications of the technology.

"I think the main conclusions are that we have to think in advance about some of the places we are headed to here," said Zehr in an interview.

He said if researchers are going to create technology allowing people to control "suits of armour" with their minds, then safeguards will have to be put in place to ensure those machines can't be taken over and controlled by others.

Technology 'on the trajectory'

Society will also have to address moral questions related to military, he added.

"I don't know? Is that where we want to go with society as well when it comes to warfare?"

While the suit worn by Iron Man's protagonist Tony Stark is still decades away, society is "on the trajectory" for the technology, said Zehr.

A handful of companies around the world, including Japan's CYBERDYNE Inc., California's Berkeley Bionics, New Zealand's REX Bionics and Israel's Argo Medical Technologies Ltd., already sell much-bulkier robotic exoskeletons for people with spinal-cord injuries.

Massachusetts-based Raytheon Company released a second-generation exoskeleton last September, an "honest-to-goodness Iron Man Suit" hailed by Time magazine as one of the 50 best inventions of 2010.

Exoskeletons don't interact with brain

The Raytheon Company is also developing a robotic suit for the U.S. military.

But Zehr said these exoskeletons do not work by interfacing directly with the brain.

Researchers are only able to control things like computer cursors and wheelchairs with the human mind, thanks to electrodes implanted in the brain, he said.

Jaimie Borisoff, a rehabilitative engineer who played on Canada's Paralympic basketball team, said society is still a long way a way from the technology presented in the movie Iron Man.

"There's not a technology yet available that certainly I would be interested in using myself right now other than for research purposes," said Borisoff.

Power-supply problem

Borisoff said there are still many practical issues to deal with and one of those is energy supply for exoskeletons and suits. "If it's a difficulty in something that is big and heavy as a car, imagine what it would be in something that is small as a suit," he said of the power-supply problem.

He said researchers and scientists are also still debating whether robots or regeneration of the spinal cord is the best way to deal with spinal-cord injuries.

Borisoff said there's no real answer to the question.

Zehr will deliver a free talk, Inventing Iron Man: Where is the Line Between Human and Machine, Sept. 20 at B.C.'s centre for spinal cord research and treatment at Vancouver General Hospital.

Zehr said he hopes people come away from the discussion impressed by the wonders of the nervous systems.