Will Rosellini was once a minor league baseball player. But he found he couldn’t do what other pitchers could do. He retired and began searching for answers. It had to do with his nervous system, and that set him on a 15-year journey to marry neuroscience and technology.
As a video game fan, he was a natural to become the science advisor to the Deus Ex video game series, a near-future tale that depicts the conflict between “natural humans” and “augmented humans” who have electronic body parts. For six years, he was the science consultant on the Deux Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (which came out in August) games.
Rosellini is one of the people who is trying to make human augmentation happen, particularly technologies like implantable devices that can help people deal with lost limbs or debilitating diseases. He gave a Ted talk about going “beyond human.” In it, he asked when will humans become cyborgs? To him, the answer is 2027. That also happens to be the year in which Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is set.
Rosellini opened my eyes about how many of the ideas in the video game — which I thought were science fiction ideas bordering on the silly — were rooted in the facts of today’s technological research. For instance, invisibility is possible in Deus Ex and some of the recent Call of Duty games. Rosellini said this cloaking ability is rooted in real research. Maybe the science fiction of Deus Ex isn’t so far from reality after all. (This topic, by the way, is something that we’ll be exploring in future GamesBeat conferences).
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: It’s an interesting business you guys are in. What was the corporate connection here? I know Open Bionics was doing some 3D printing, and then who else was involved? Razer was drawing some attention to this. I guess the designers were getting ideas from your company? Is that right?
Will Rosellini: Right. The story goes, if I can start in a different spot—in 2001 I retired as a professional baseball player. I was a minor league pitcher who realized he couldn’t throw strikes in the big leagues. I had all the training. I had the same physical frame as all these other guys. But something was different about what I could do and what they could do. It turns out that had to do with my nervous system.
That set me off on a 15-year quest, up through today, on how to think about the nervous system in relation to what I call neurotechnology. From 2001 until now I’ve started and sold three companies. I have another one in progress called Nexeon Medsystems. I got six graduate degrees, all of them centering on using electricity in the nervous system. I’m also a very big gamer. When I heard that the Deus Ex franchise was relaunching, I called the guys and said, “Hey, can I help you? I’d like to be the one that helps develop all the science behind the innovations that would be present in the game.”
I’ve been working on Human Revolution and now Mankind Divided for six or seven years now as the scientific consultant. What we tried to do was map out what would happen over some period of time. Since I’m in an advanced R&D type of company, we already knew what the next 10 years would look like in bioelectronics. It was a lot of fun to guess what the following 10 years might look like.
We’ve been doing clever stuff together at the intersection of what’s real and what’s science fiction for about five years now. What’s becoming really interesting is that one of my companies uses video games and implantable electronics to retrain the brain to learn quickly. The government has started to use that to develop technologies to help soldiers learn languages more quickly with an implantable device. We’re now working on brain technologies that allow you to not only stimulate the brain to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s, but we can record signals from our implants to more closely inform what should be happening with that stimulation.
GamesBeat: With your Deus Ex work, how did you establish that contact?
Rosellini: I just called the CEO. He thought I was just kind of a crazy fan at the beginning, but I said, “Look, here’s what I’ve done. I am a crazy fan, but in this capacity I want to help make the game better. Here’s what I think you should do.” I had an initial meeting and knew my stuff – knew the storyline, the franchise, the Deus Ex world. Then I set off doing a bunch of hard work to figure out what would fit in their storyline, how to move the story with the technology.
GamesBeat: I’m not sure I played the original Deus Ex. Did it share the augmentation theme, or did that come with Human Revolution?
Rosellini: Human Revolution is a prequel. The original Deus Ex was about—call it a cyborg or enhanced technology game, and then Invisible War was an extension of that. But they were based in the 2060 to 2070 time frame. It was more about merging with artificial intelligence. Human Revolution was primarily about mechanical augmentations, and Mankind Divided takes place only two years later. We didn’t change the technology stack much for Mankind Divided.
GamesBeat: So that’s around 2027 to 2029? Do I have that right?
Rosellini: Yeah, that’s right.
GamesBeat: It seemed like Human Revolution was the key game here, where it drew a much closer connection to reality. Would that be fair?
Rosellini: Right. We were writing it as projectable—we wanted to make sure that every technology in the game could be traced to a current R&D effort that, if successful, would yield a technology result. That was kind of a rule that we set for ourselves.
GamesBeat: How much influence did you have there, relative to the people actually writing the fiction?
Rosellini: That was the fun part. Sometimes they showed up and said, “Hey, we need Neuropozyne to be a central plot element. This is how it has to work. Can you help us explain that away? Can you help make that central to the story and explain it with the technology?” I’d say there were five to seven of those kinds of situations where it wasn’t just, “Go make an extrapolation in the white space assuming X-Y-Z.” For me, as an advanced science guy, it’s a lot of fun to be able to say, “Okay, we have some rules, but go out and imagine what the world will look like in 20 years.”
GamesBeat: But they didn’t really go off in a direction where it was completely make-believe. They stayed fairly close to what was doable?
Rosellini: Yeah. One of the things that was maybe a problem with Invisible War was that there were too many black boxes. The player that likes Deus Ex is not necessarily into just shoot-em-up action. It really is a thinking man’s game, and I think that they like the detail that was put into the who and the why and where things were headed. You read all the books and you get a reward for reading them. They’re real-life extrapolations on things like where vagus nerve stimulation is headed. That became the reason why you’re able to get regeneration of your health. Glaxo-Smith-Kline was doing that research, by the way, and that became a new company called SetPoint Medical nine years later. The future is here. It’s just still in academic papers.
GamesBeat: I knew they had done their research, but that’s all they had said. They didn’t go into the details so much in any of the things I’ve read recently. It does seem like, though—I played Mankind Divided through twice now. When you get the powers you can use, that’s where it seems like it’s going further into science fiction.
Rosellini: Well, first off, let’s take—the fundamental augmentations in Human Revolution are a lot of mechanical stuff. You look at legs and arms. DARPA’s been running a program for 10 years. Now you’re getting completely 3D-printed robotic limbs that can be controlled with either external or implantable devices. The big challenge that DARPA has is making those limbs work on enough battery power to do all the functions you see in Human Revolution. It’s not a question of “can you have that limb?” It’s just a matter of battery size. In 10 years, a lot of the mechanical arm and leg functions you see in the game will be there.
The Icarus fall, for example, where you can jump off a building and not hurt yourself—if you look at some of the exoskeleton research from Ekso Bionics, in conjunction with the cheetah leg prosthetics, you’re getting into a range where you can have four to six times the strength and responsiveness in your skeleton.
The things that were, I think, maybe pushing it, were things like a completely replaceable re-breathing system for your lungs. You had this power to go through a chemical attack and not have any trouble with the gas. That kind of cyborg technology as far as lung development probably isn’t 10 years from getting here. But we’re already pasting and changing lung function for things like ALS and spinal cord injury with electrical stimulation. Conceivably clearing lungs, automating lungs. We have a grant right now to stimulate for bronchial constriction and asthma. It’s still tolerable enough that machines could be controlling that aspect of function, so we had fun playing with where it could go.
GamesBeat: I suppose the one where you smash down onto the ground and a shockwave moves out from your epicenter and takes out a bunch of people—it’s almost like you’re at the center of an explosion. I’m not sure how that one works.
Rosellini: Yeah, that was the Icarus fall. That was the hardest one to really contemplate. But there is—I think have an email to the team on that one. I said, “If we have to figure out how that’s going to work, there is work being done in particle physics and electrical interaction. You could, if you drove a hard enough force of electrical energy, make an electrical explosion like that.”
Think of some of the floating subways in China, where the metal parts aren’t actually touching. They’re doing it with magnetic fields. Theoretically, if you could generate a strong enough magnetic field from your prosthetic limbs, you’d be able to create those kinds of forces on a falling event.
The other thing you could say—if you want to Google Ekso Bionics, they’re now making a fleet of commercial—what they call EK suits. They could very easily support this kind of falling – without having your spinal cord break — and ultimately you could attach magnetic field generators to allow you to float and/or create explosions if you wanted to. And of course, you’re stretching it at that point. But they needed that plot element, so I had to help them get there.
GamesBeat: Things like the super-fast speed – where they represent it as time slowing down – how does that come about?
Rosellini: That came from sports. If you’re in what they call the zone, as an athlete—the phenomenon that the athletes say is happening is time slowing down. You get this kind of extrasensory feeling of being able to take in a lot more information, process it faster, and then be able to manipulate in the physical environment. Someone like Michael Jordan describes this phenomenon that we try to capture as part of this particular power the character has.
So how is this created in the brain? Well, the brain is only using electrical activity. Conceivably, from a neuroscience perspective, this could simply be the local field potential of oscillations and currents in certain portions of the prefrontal cortex and motor cortex, oscillating in a way that presents time as if it seems slower. We thought, well, if you could capture what that signature was in the brain, which is possible, and manipulate that oscillation in the brain, then you’d have the effect of being able to process much faster.
So time isn’t changing. Your perception of time is changing. There is some proof that that happens already, organically, and you could manipulate that using devices that currently exist.
GamesBeat: Did you work with the whole team? How many scientific consultants did they have?
Rosellini: I kind of served that role for them. It was just me, and then I think they also have really clever marketing. Back in the day, one of the newspapers actually thought that the Sarif Industries company was real. David Sarif’s company, the marketing material was so good that they claimed the eyeball—what did they call it? Some newspaper – you can probably google it – you’ll see that they ran a piece that pulled out something from the Deus Ex books. They pulled out language we used in the game. That was back in 2013. It was kind of fun.
As far as Open Bionics, they did a really good job marketing—they’re making a product, right? They guerrilla marketed their product by way of the Deus Ex story. I didn’t have much to do with that as far as coming up with that idea, but Open Bionics did a great job helping out their own company.
GamesBeat: So you didn’t interact with those guys much?
Rosellini: Not during—they weren’t part of any of the writing process. They came in post-production as we got into thinking about some of the marketing efforts. They weren’t part of the original making of the game. But their idea, that you could 3D-print and customize prosthetic limbs, is very much in line with what we thought would happen. We were excited to see another company out there trying to do that.
That’s very much what the LIMB clinic represents in the game, that you can get these—it’s just software, once 3D printers become more prevalent. That’s what they’ve proven.
GamesBeat: Did they put any Easter eggs about the real world in there? Were there references to anything like Open Bionics?
Rosellini: No. The only thing they did is they gave me an office in Human Revolution. There’s an office labeled “Will Rosellini” you can walk into, which is nice. But they didn’t do anything too overt, calling out anything in the game.
Just for fun, I named some of my companies after—there is a Sarif Biomedical that’s one of my real companies. It was bought by a public company, so you can find that Sarif Biomedical existed and was acquired. I named another one Tai Yong, and another Belltower Associates. That’s been kind of fun.
GamesBeat: The invisibility, do you think that’s also feasible?
Rosellini: There’s probably five different labs—what they do is, with electromagnetic waves you can make curved surfaces appear flat. When that’s the case, you can create angles that make you disappear. If you took a metal surface, put a cloak over it, and that cloak had seven layers of—I think they use carbon nanotubes. Each of those layers has different electrical properties. They can essentially suck up what’s being covered from interacting with electromagnetic waves, and in that way make that electromagnetic wave disappear. So on an electrical interaction basis, you can make something disappear.
That also then allows you to use the cloak on—you can change it into lenses, make super-thin lenses that allow you to perform the same action with light. They’ve done it with electromagnetic waves, by creating layers of fabric on top of whatever you’re trying to cloak, which makes the device invisible from an electromagnetic perspective. In 2013 or 2014, some people up at Rochester and at UC Berkeley, one of them made something under a microscope invisible, and another one used macro-scale materials and lenses to essentially make an item invisible to the human eye.
It’s a matter of manipulating how the eye is able to receive what’s coming off of the cloak. Knowing the way the human eye works, you’re able to scatter the light. Can you make that into something that actually makes someone invisible? Not really. You’re just tricking the human eye. But that was close enough for us to say, “Well, why not?”
GamesBeat: Were you involved in the CNN event, where they had the augmentation documentary?
Rosellini: Yeah. I was in the documentary. I flew out and they looked at our labs. They spent a lot of time with me. They did a great job, I thought, of getting at the heart of who’s doing this stuff.
The other thing we did, we created a code of ethics for human augmentation. We worked really hard on that. We probably spent four months. At the end of it we had some really notable people that had worked on it. Someone in the Obama administration was in on it, coming up with these ethical codes. We published a code that CNN put out at the end of the conference.
GamesBeat: Is there more happening on that front, as far as just documenting all of this?
Rosellini: The game came out in August. Zoltan ran for president afterward, or during. He was one of the guys on the ethics code writeup. He ended up declaring a presidential candidacy and went off and said this stuff was so important that he felt politics is what we should be focused on. Right now—game productions get really big, and then they get really small after a release. There’s a lot of hiring and retooling to get on new franchises and new games. But like with Human Revolution, they come out with different platforms, or extensions of the game that might have interesting things. I’ve also heard that there’s a movie in the works for the Deus Ex franchise, but that’s all I’ve heard.
GamesBeat: They left a fairly big cliffhanger in some ways. You have no idea who these shadow people are, still.
Rosellini: If you haven’t played all four of them, I kind of agreed with a lot of the comments about how this one ended. But if you’ve played Invisible War and the original game, some of this stuff has been repeated enough that they might have just felt like they didn’t need to fill in the blanks on everything. They kind of did the Tolkien thing, where if you don’t feel like enough of the story was in the movie, you can go and read the books.
I didn’t like the approach, because I feel like they have a complex enough story that you shouldn’t make people do all of the thinking. But nonetheless, you’re right. You have to go back and play the old games to see how it’s all laid out. It’s pretty rough to go back and play the original now. It’s almost 20 years old. There are books that have been written to fill in gaps, but nothing that goes back – or in the future, I guess – to explain some of the details.
Human Revolution spent a lot of time placing it in the technology space. Mankind Divided really focused on the political strife. But there was less of an explanation as far as who the people are that are behind the strife.
GamesBeat: And once you get to the end, you really want to take those people out. [laughter] It seems to me like there has to be a third game where that happens.
Rosellini: Right, right.