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Which Superpowers Are We Closest to Achieving?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Invisibility. Telepathy. Super-strength and flying robot suits. These ideas were once thought to be outlandish and impossible, but today they seem exciting and achievable. But, which superpowers will humans have first? Some say X-ray vision... Some say teleportation... Which power would you most like to have?

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Which Superpowers Are We Closest to Achieving?

Mankind has always been fascinated by the concept of the superhuman. From the great classical heroes like Hercules or Achilles to the pages of contemporary comic books, these famous fighters all possess traits and abilities we couldn’t ever actually achieve – or, could we? People have been working hard for hundreds of years trying to become like the heroes we celebrate, and finally, modern science seems to be on its way to making at least some of their abilities a reality. While many superpowers as we know them today don’t work at all according to our laws of physics, like the Flash’s superspeed and Superman’s flight, others have more of a grounding in reality, like Iron Man. But are these “realistic” heroes really attainable at all, and what lengths would we have to go to even recreate a fraction of the power seen in fiction?

One superpower we’ve arguably had for over a century is the power of flight. Mankind had always envied birds and dreamed of one day taking to the skies ourselves: a dream that was finally realized when the Wright brothers successfully invented the airplane at the beginning of the 20th Century But people still take planes and helicopters for granted and crave the sense of freedom birds enjoy, always wanting to create a superior form of flight – although the tragedy of Icarus and Daedalus and their mechanical wings warns us against this. While, in a similar vein, many adrenaline junkies use wingsuits in their stunts, the jetpack has become the ultimate symbol of flight and the future. Jetpacks aren’t as far away as you might think, however, and one pioneer named Yves Rossy claims to have crossed mountains and oceans with his technology, achieving one of humanity’s loftiest goals.

Flight certainly isn’t the most controversial superpower people want to adopt from science-fiction, however; that award goes to x-ray vision. While an x-ray is technically a way to see somebody’s skeleton, the term in this context is mostly applied to the power of seeing through somebody’s clothes to their naked body underneath. Perhaps worryingly, the technology enabling this extreme kind of voyeurism does exist and was implemented briefly in some airports – until people rightly complained it was too much of a violation of privacy in the name of security. A professor at MIT named Dina Katabi has a different approach to x-ray vision though and has invented a device she calls “Wi-Vi”, which allows movement to be detected through walls; which would be indispensable for crisis response and emergency services teams.

While x-ray vision is pretty much scraping the bottom of the superpower barrel, invisibility certainly isn’t. While it carries even more extreme concerns about privacy, not helped by a large number of people who say they’d immediately use it to spy, scientists have made huge leaps forward developing the technology to disappear from view. The closest thing we have to a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak is a suit designed by Japanese scientist Susumu Tachi, who created a coat which projects everything happening behind the wearer, through the use of a small camera on the back. It’s only possible because it’s made, “retro-reflectum,” which allows 3D projections and sounds like something straight out of a comic book. In Singapore, some Chinese scientists have made another device using screens which allowed a kitten and a fish to be miraculously vanished, though it only works from certain angles. Finally, researchers at the University of Birmingham have successfully made a paperclip undetectable to the human eye by refracting light around it, using the properties of a futuristic crystal called calcite. There are currently a lot of drawbacks to all of these techniques, however, namely that they rely on very specific conditions and perspectives to actually work.

Telekinesis is a superpower which is sometimes overlooked, though when at its height it’s one of the most potentially devastating and dangerous abilities out there. While it could be deadly, developing telekinesis would be a godsend for many people who struggle to do things by themselves – people who are paralyzed or have muscular diseases, for instance. The power to move something solely with one’s mind would liberate those who previously had to rely on cumbersome technology and carers, which is why a company in Massachusetts is developing the tech. Their version of telekinesis is called the BrainGate Neural Interface System; it uses a device surgically implanted into the brain’s motor cortex, detecting signals which would ordinarily tell someone’s body to move and translating them into code which will control a machine or machines.

If controlling objects with your mind just isn’t flashy enough for you, however, there are also some suggestions that controlling the weather might soon be viable. Scientists in China have used a technique called “cloud seeding” to control the amount of rain, even using it during the 2008 Beijing Olympics to ensure dry weather. Supervillains like Weather Wizard might not be the most threatening comic figures, but there’s almost unlimited potential in being able to control the planet’s climate. It could put an end to both droughts and rainfall, as well as dangerous heatwaves, and taken to its extreme could even reverse the negative impact of climate change.

Technology in this sense can only take things so far, however. In most superhero media, the things which make somebody truly heroic lie within – their genetics, that is. This is the entire premise of the X-Men, after all, who all possess the mutant gene which gives them extraordinary abilities. While controversial, genetic experimentation has already been proven successful in plants and animals, using a gene editing tool known as CRISPR which can meticulously alter a living entity’s genetic makeup and the genes it possesses. It’s even been used in human embryos to study how they develop, in an effort to learn about miscarriages and infertility, among other things. We potentially could use this technique to give ourselves the same genetic alterations that makes Wolverine heal, as well as making ourselves resistant to all kinds of diseases.

Finally, perhaps the most attainable of all is the standard super suit, using gadgets to give oneself superior abilities – like Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark. Exoskeletons used to help people with mobility problems or aid in heavy lifting and intensive labor have existed for a long time, and one of the most well-known is the HAL, which stands for Hybrid Assistive Limb. This powered exoskeleton allows a person to lift something five times heavier than they would normally be able to. Combined with one of the jetpacks we saw earlier, you really could become Iron Man. Batman also doesn’t have any powers, nor a fully-fledged exoskeleton, but his Bat Suit certainly isn’t without its perks. Using a new alloy called graphene, we could create a skin-tight superhero costume straight out of the Golden Age of comics, with the added bonus of it being completely bulletproof. Graphene is created by stripping down carbon until it’s only one molecule thick, making it lighter than air and almost invisible while being stronger than diamond, which would essentially turn people into Colossus and has numerous applications for militaries and law enforcement.

Humanity is already the most advanced species on Earth, using tools, communicating and creating in ways other animals – even incredibly intelligent ones like dolphins or gorillas – simply can’t. Perhaps we already have enough abilities that give us an edge over the rest of the animal kingdom, though a few more definitely wouldn’t go amiss.

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