A backstage entrance into the world of neuroscience and academia.

Science/Fiction: Avatar

Time passes by and it has been more than 10 years that James Cameron introduced the blue aliens to the silver screen. More than 10 years that Avatar has been out and whenever someone speaks about it, I still have this song playing loudly in my mind (click on the link at your own risks). Also, most people remember Avatar for its visual, not really for its story arc, nor its characters. I am glad to tell you that we will not speak about the story, and since you are here you probably already knew that. So let us land on a new planet and see what it has to offer! Scientifically speaking, of course.

I wonder if the reflection in the eye has some spoiler in it.

What is Avatar all about? It is the story of Jake Sully and its discovery of ecology, empathy and of the fact that a mining company does not care about either. It is also the occasion to see Jake fight an extremely unfair fight, with the mining company being far more destructive than he could ever imagine, but I am straying away from my usual path, although a look into the ecological message could be nice.

The above mentioned mining company is out on a far away planet called Pandora for its richness in Unobtainium. Unobtainium is a metal with superconductor properties, an excuse to have floating rocks in the world. However, we start far far away, on a planet that all of you may know: Earth. Jake Sully lives in an overpopulated version of Earth where pollution has replaced breathable air and technology has replaced nature. In one word: cyberpunk. Jake is a veteran soldier, left disabled and without a future… until he finds out that his brother died and that he could take his place on Pandora. Why him? Well, the only hint we are given at this point is that his genome is what got him his new job. Not much to say there, two brothers, after all, are more likely to have similar genomes than two humans taken at random. Let’s follow Jake to Pandora, then!

The base in Pandora is grey and dull until we can see a speck of colour: an arrow planted in the tire of a huge truck. The second moment we catch a glimpse of nice colour is as we move towards the “BioLab”, as Norm Spellman likes to call it. Who is Norm Spellman? Just another scientist in the base, but not any scientist! One that has an “avatar”. We come here to the most amazing creation of this entire film: a cuve with a hybrid na’vi-human body (na’vis being Pandora’s native species). To further add to this, one of the bodies has been specifically created for Jake’s brother to control it! Hence, Jake can control it because he is close to his brother (genetically speaking).

Before diving into the details of controlling another body, I would like to discuss the possibility of growing a body in a cuve. Recently, humans have discovered a way to make mouse embryos develop ex utero. Basically, we have the first stages of pregnancy in a bottle, so it is believable that we could develop a full body in a futuristic setting. In Avatar, we are not facing simple mouse embryos however, the avatars are chimeras in the genetic sense of the way, and adult ones at that! In and of itself, chimeras are a way to study some human genetics in a safer way (and not limited to that) and human-other chimeras have already been grown. Here, however, the ethics are more than debatable. The two bodies we see in the cuves are adult bodies! They were grown to be controlled by humans!

Jake and his avatar, with a lot of blue (dabadee…).

Nowadays, stem cell and embryo research are possible only within well defined constraints. The development of life is a great subject to study, but there are concerns about working on a living being, even more so if conscious. Currently, we are quite confident that consciousness does not arise in utero, but here we are facing adult bodies! Sure they have been kept asleep in cuves, but does that really mean that, given the chance to wake up on their own, they would not develop a consciousness? Mind you, I am not talking about personnality or anything alike, but consciousness as defined in animals, arguably the simplest form: response to environment and wakefulness (to keep it simple, but you can get much more here and here). So once the sedation is lifted, I would expect the na’vi-humans to be aware of their surroundings and react to it, without Jake or any “avatar pilot” being in their heads. Just add the fact that these bodies could develop personalities if given the chance and this becomes an entirely more complicated topic.

Now for the more obscure part: controlling the avatar. Basically controlling another body from afar. First, let’s forget the question of a possible consciousness in the other body and do like the film: consider the avatar as an empty shell. Said like this, the film suddenly takes a dark turn. Then, for both my sake and yours, let’s also forget that all of this is wireless and that there must be a range at which the actual body disconnects from the avatar because the signal is interrupted or not strong enough anymore. That never happens during the film, so there must be a plethora of invisible 5G antennae on Pandora.

Connecting a brain to an artificially grown biological body (with its own brain) has not been done to my knowledge. I will use the example of prosthetics and what neuroscientists call a brain machine interface (BMI, or BCI for computer) to hypothetise how the avatar control could work. With our current technology, it is possible to control a machine with just our thoughts, one recent example being this hand. So the idea of the avatar is probably to scan the activity of the human brain (with EEG), analyse the activity patterns and reproduce them in real time in the avatar brain! The extent to which machine-learning and AI are developing leads me to think that controlling a full (artificial) body could be possible in the future.

Simple enough, isn’t it? Well, no it has to be more complicated. The sensations from the avatar also have to be transferred the other way. So both bodies need some kind of brain recording machine to transfer information to one another (whereas only the human body has one in the film). The amount of information that needs to be computed for a body to stand straight, breathe, smell, see, taste, feel and more is bound to be staggering. One solution that I see is that the avatar has some kind of invasive sensor. Invasive sensor? will you ask. Invasive, in this case, means that the sensor is implanted directly within the brain, under the skull. For now, I will focus only on visual acuity. There are previous endeavours in research that were relatively successful in deciphering images in the brain based on MRI data. MRI is non-invasive and thus brings less information than our imaginary sensor in the avatar brain. So technically, it is not impossible. I would say we are even closer than we think.

I wish EEG caps would look like this… you are one lucky man, Jake Sully.

Avatar (the film) sweeps under the rug any ethical concern. As I said, the cuve-grown bodies are considered simple husks, with no consciousness, or at least I would say so if the film did not insist on one point through Jake Sully’s voice:
… and the concept is that every driver is matched with his own avatar, so that their nervous systems are in tune… or something
So their nervous systems (the driver’s and the avatar’s) need to be alike. Considering the two bodies have to exchange information, it is something I would myself recommend, although it seems quite difficult to ‘copy-paste’ a full nervous system, more so with the modifications obtained through years and years of living. But this sentence hides something else. If their nervous systems are in tune, then it means that the avatar indeed has a consciousness of its own, albeit a copy of Jake’s one…

Anyway, enough about the wonders and horrors of the avatar technology, I wish to finish this review with a quick summary of a few things done nicely that you should pay attention to if you ever watch Avatar again. It will make the ride more enjoyable and make you forget (hopefully) some terrible tropes in there.
– Patel, a scientist, says early in the film that “good science is good observation”.
– Grace Augustine, the leader of the avatar project, is the perfect image of a PI: stressful, exigeant, but in the end not a bad person.
– Michelle Rodriguez is a badass once more.
– All the creatures we encounter (with the exception of the na’vis) seem to come from the same common ancestor. Their nostrils are on their shoulders, they have 6 limbs and quite often several eyes.
– There is a rearview mirror that appears in the mech of the bad guy in the last fight… and it’s hilarious.