Tony Stark — the brilliant engineer whose pursuit of a weapon of mass destruction caused him to suffer a massive injury, which necessitated the creation an elaborate suit of armor that gave him supernatural powers— is a fictional character created by Stan Lee. The superhero who would become known as Iron Man has enthralled comic fans since 1963 and has more recently become the star of the latest Hollywood superhero franchise.
As played by Robert Downey, Jr. in the three recent films (including Iron Man 3 which opens on May 3), the character of Tony Stark was based in part on Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, but don’t let that fact (or the character’s comic book origins) fool you into thinking that Iron Man’s powers are strictly the stuff of fantasy. Much of Iron Man’s technology is already here, or will be in the not-too-distant future.
Here’s a look at a few of the things that may or may not be coming to a superhero near you soon (after the jump)...
The thing that makes Iron Man an iron man is his robotic exoskeleton. According to an article published in the MIT Technology Review in 2011, this technology is a mere five years away. And since the article is two years old, that means we only have to wait three more years. But don’t get too excited, the initial versions, being produced by Raytheon Sarcos, will need to be tethered to a power source. A free-roaming version is another decade in the offing.
Iron Man’s ability to perceive an augmented reality, where information about what he is seeing and hearing can be shown to him in a heads-up-display manner, is important to his ability to fight the bad guys. The development of Google Glass is obviously a huge step in this direction. If it doesn’t end up being a massive distraction that causes people to walk into things, Google Glass, or some similar technology, could greatly enhance our experience of the world.
In one scene from Iron Man, our hero is able to separate the bad guys hiding amid a group of civilians using some sort of identity-recognizing sensors. While modern military technology has made so-called surgical strikes on enemy targets possible, if being able to tell the good guys from the bad guys was so easy, we’re guessing 9/11 would never have happened.
Voice-control technology is also not in its infancy, but as anyone with an iPhone knows, it’s far from perfect. However, this is a technology that is being developed rapidly, so we expect to see Iron-Man-like abilities within a decade or so.
Iron Man’s Extremis upgrade (comic version only) gave healing powers to the metal man, but so far there’s no such technology available outside the superhero universe.
Let’s face it, without the jet boots and the ability to fly, Iron Man’s just a souped-up Roman Centurion. Despite their popularity in science fiction, jet packs and jet boots seem to remain a distant dream. There have been some almost-successful attempts at building jet packs, but their range is usually limited. The United States Air Force abandoned its research into jet packs, since already-available helicopter technology is far more practical.
Drone warfare may be one aspect of the Iron Man movies that follows, rather than imagines, existing technology. The U.S. military has been using experimenting with aerial vehicles (UAV) — or drones — since 1916. Nikola Tesla imagined remote control combat vehicles in 1915. UAVs were used in Vietnam, the Yom Kippur War, and, most recently, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While not exactly a secret weapon or superpower, alcoholism has been a defining aspect of Tony Stark’s personality since 1979’s Demon In a Bottle issue (Iron Man #128). Speaking in advance of the 2008 Iron Man film, director Jon Favreau announced that in the films Stark would retain this characteristic. "Stark has issues with booze. That's part of who he is,” Favreau said. "I don't think we'll ever do the Leaving Las Vegas version, but it will be dealt with.” Alcoholism affects 15 percent of Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health, making it an issue that is anything but futuristic.