I recently had the pleasure to speak with Eidos Montreal’s primary bionics consultant for the Deus Ex series, Will Rosellini.
Will has been involved with the franchise since the development of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and has had a major influence on the developer’s depiction of future human augmentation. It was a fascinating conversation, and likely not our last: Will is pushing a lot of new technology, both in and outside the world of Deus Ex.
Nate: First, let’s talk a bit more about you. You weren’t always a bionics researcher. In fact, you started out as a pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks. That’s a pretty big move. How did you get from one to the other?
Will: So I was a right-handed pitcher that threw with a lot of power, but never could control my curve ball. So I played in the Diamondbacks organization, and retired at the ripe old age of 22 years old — when I realized I didn’t want to ride buses for the next ten years in the minor leagues. And what I was fascinated with was the idea of, well… I’m 6’2.” I could throw as hard as everybody else, physically. I’m on the same training program. What was the difference between me and the other pitchers? And the big difference was how my nervous system controlled my athletic performance. For whatever reason, it was different. That set me off on a path to think about how the nervous system works, and why it would be important in things like athletics. And just in investigating that, I started to see how much was going to happen with technology that altered the nervous system that I just got hooked after my baseball career, and so I became a neuro-technologist.
Nate: Now you’re the CEO of Nexeon MedSystems.
Will: So I kind of have three parts to my career. First, I was a perennial graduate student to learn everything I could about how to translate, basically devices that were electrically active, like pacemakers, and turn those into clinical products. So I ended up getting six graduate degrees —
Will: (laughs) Six. Yeah. I’m in the 33rd grade, is what I tell my kids. So anyway I like to learn and so I kept going to school to learn about different aspects of failure modes, of where this technology was going to go, and in the process learned from a lot of professors. They had a lot of innovations that were just really, really exciting to work on.
I didn’t want to be a bench-top researcher, so I became an entrepreneur, took their ideas and spun them out into companies. I’ve been doing that for the better part of 15 years. Nexeon is a company that is going public, that has a lot of different products that are implantable neuro-technologies.
Nate: How did you get involved with Eidos Montreal and Deus Ex?
Will: In 2001, two things happened in the same week, on Christmas break. One, I saw a Zyvex presentation on how they were going to utilize DARPA funding — the research arm of the Department of Defense — to make robotic limbs that plug back into the nervous system. So I was in Dallas — Zyvex is from Dallas, they’re a nanotech company — and I saw the presentation, and thought that was really, really cool.
Second, I played Deus Ex: Invisible Warfare. I loved Invisible Warfare for all the reasons I think Deus Ex is one of the best games of all time, but I understood why the critics didn’t like it as much as the original. So I pretty much played Invisible Warfare, then played the original and said, “I’m going to do this the rest of my life.”
So that’s kind of, sort of a “calling” moment. Five years later, I’m doing neuro-technology. We’re making devices to alter the way that we learn and remember, and Deus Ex announces that they’re going to reboot the franchise.
I called the CEO at the time and said, “Look guys, y’all messed up how the technology was done in Invisible War; you just kind of waved your hand, and said ‘it’s all nano-technology and black box stuff.’” I said, “Let’s just work a lot harder on it; I’ll do it for free.” And so, he replied back and said, “Look, we had a meeting and thought you might have just been a crazy person and a crazy fan and were going to ignore you… But okay. Give us an hour.”
So we sat down with the original team — Mary DeMarle and Jonathan [Jacques-Belletête] — and they said, “Here’s what we’re thinking,” and I said, “Y’all are already on the right path.” We spent two years saying, “Alright, I’m working on devices ten years in the future; let’s just make this real. The reality of this space is so cool that we don’t have to make it science fiction.” So we spent a lot of time developing a road map that takes us out to 2027, which is when Human Revolution began.
When I looked at it, it was basically two technology cycles of development. I was already working on the first cycle and knew exactly what would be coming out, so it was just one more jump. What I think was really cool about Human Revolution was we’re now about ten years out, and we were really right on a lot of stuff.
The fun thing about Mankind Divided is that it continues to sort of project into a range where these technologies are becoming more real, and you’re basically starting to adopt cell phone technology into your nervous system. We predicted that a long time ago.
Nate: The Deus Ex series is one of the reasons I knew that I wanted to write about video games for a living. It’s been hugely influential since its creation, and I can see it becoming more relevant now than ever. But to follow up on what you were just saying, how close do you think the tech in Mankind Divided is to the real world? Would you give me an example?
Will: Yeah, so we’ll do a couple examples. One is, we’ve been working on a technology that came out of UT-Dallas, where you apply a brief burst of electricity on the vagus nerve — which is a nerve in the neck — and when you do that, you get a burst of neuro-chemicals in the brain, and these are the same chemicals that you get when you take ADHD medicine. So essentially it tells your brain, “Okay, pay attention, this is what you’re supposed to be learning.” So we showed that was really important if you want to take an adult that’s stopped having what we call “neuroplasticity,” or the ability to learn, and said, “Well, let’s rapidly relearn how to use your arm.” And that becomes important in a stroke.
In the game, you’re able to learn different types of moves based on your upgrades. You’re able to do language development, or cognitive development, and learn new skills very quickly. Kind of like a Matrix download. Well, DARPA just came out with a program where they want to use vagus nerve stimulation and targeted neuroplasticity for soldiers to learn new languages very quickly. And so that was something that we predicted in 2007 that is now becoming real, and Deus Ex had that integrated in Human Revolution from the very beginning.
Nate: What about more blatant physical augmentations? For instance, Adam Jensen can lift things that would be too heavy for a normal person, leap extraordinarily far, and see with unnatural acuity.
Will: Yeah, that’s a good thrust to pay attention to. There’s two companies — and this is interesting for the game — we predicted that vision restoration would first be part of a small subset of blindness, and then a company out of the University of Southern California eventually got enough channels to not only restore vision, but to actually make your vision better. And there’s really no reason you couldn’t add other elements outside the spectrum of light we currently see. So you could see ultraviolet light, for example.
So there’s a company that’s gone public, it’s called Second Sight, it’s FDA approved, and you get an ocular implant that restores your blindness, and their next product will be a brain implant that gives you more visualization channels than you have as a natural seeing person.
Now, the funny thing about this was, The Sun over in the U.K. got confused about what theDeus Ex technology was depicting, versus the real world. They ran an article saying it already existed in 2010, I believe. It was a lot of fun for us because I was like, “Yes, we’re getting close enough that people think what we said was happening was real.”
And then somebody wrote his master’s thesis on how much was real versus fiction in the game, and then did a pretty thorough analysis on how close we got. It was kind of fun to kind of have somebody else do all the work to see how close the predictions came.
Now the other thing you said was being able to lift things and be very strong. There’s two companies now making exoskeletons, where essentially the idea was to let paralyzed patients walk, and we want to let soldiers carry 500-600 pounds of supplies. So Ekso Bionics has made an exoskeleton, and there are companies that are currently modulating the nervous system to allow you to learn how to use the exoskeletal systems faster. So you’re getting a combination of stimulation of the nervous system, learning, and super strength as augmented by these mechanical skeletons.
Nate: Obviously we’re making a huge number of advances. But that brings us to a subject that is very close to the heart of both Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, which is, “How are we going to respond as a society? As a species?” After all, Deus Ex paints a pretty dystopic vision of mankind’s reaction to “directed evolution.”
Will: So CNN actually did a conference on the ethics of human augmentation. I actually participated in about a three or four month process to write a code of ethics on what would be allowed versus not allowed in this new world of augmentations. I brought in a whole lot of people, guys on the president’s Council of Bioethics, but there were a couple of really interesting questions that come up that I think speak to your point.
First one is, we’ve already been augmenting ourselves for about 15 years with mechanical devices to get bigger boobs and better chins. Augmentation for sex purposes is about 15 years old. There’s a stat on the abuse of cognitive-enhancing drugs, where 40% of professors and I think 50% of college seniors are using drugs to enhance their performance cognitively. And then, of course, you know about athletes with performance-enhancing drugs. So I think that in the enhancement argument of changing things in a dramatic way, is a little bit misshapen, in the sense that we’re already doing it.
Will: Where it gets interesting is things like, you know if the technology exists and you’re in the military, do you have to be augmented? Does the government have to pay for you to become a super soldier, or otherwise risk your life? If you’re a profoundly deaf child, does the state have to pay for your deaf education, or can they force you to get a cochlear implant?
It’s more the margins of where the technology can be applied, and new questions of, okay, the technology drives costs down, but it creates new questions for the state to answer, it creates questions for responsible parties of children to answer. But I don’t believe in this dystopian future that Deus Ex propagates, as being driven from the augmentations themselves.
Nate: How do you think people are going to respond as this technology becomes more prevalent? We have technologies on the horizon that are so life-altering, and they’ve become virtually inevitable. How do you think people are going to deal with that?
Will: We envision a future that, instead of people lining up to get the latest Apple phone, they’re lining up to get upgrades to their implanted systems. That sounds way far off, but it’s not. It’s in a 10-15 year time frame; it’ll be in our lifetime. And here’s the reason why: The brain naturally wants to be part of a social network. So the reason you actually cannotnot pay attention to your phone — is that your brain is addicted to being connected into this social network.
But it’s actually frustrating for your brain to have to have the delay between a thought, cognitive activity, and your fingers doing typing. So just like the cell phone and Facebook have driven adoption of new technology because we all want to be closer and more networked and more information needs to get into our nervous system, if we make the devices minimally invasive enough, there’s not much difference to carrying a cell phone in your hand 24/7, sleeping with it, and having that same technology planted directly into the nervous system. That’s where we think it’s going to go. Then it becomes a software upgrade to get to new capabilities for your nervous system.
Nate: What are the hazards involved in such dramatic leaps forward? Are we in danger of becoming Icarus as we charge headfirst into altering the fundamental aspects of our humanity? What are the issues of this next version of humanity?
Will: Well, you’re going to have real challenges with the idea that the future of technology is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. I believe that the biggest challenge will be in the “have vs. have not” debate of an elite super class getting access to technology that gives them even more of an advantage, and a poor underclass that can’t catch up.
That’s always been the case in human society. There’s this class division. It’s primarily been driven by a combination of nature vs nurture. So you’re given genes and you’re given an environment, and usually you fall in the range of where that gene/environment combo gets you. The difference is that with enabling technology that allows you to change your genetic structure or rapidly alter your environmental upbringing, you now get exponential improvements in people who have access to that technology, and that creates a gigantic divide.
Nate: I guess this “human revolution” could leave “mankind divided.” And speaking of which, what’s it been like working like directly with the team? You’re essentially helping to create a video game simulation of what you’re actually studying in reality. That must be surreal.
Will: For me, my wife thinks I’m crazy to go work for free on extra stuff, but I tell her, you know, this is just a medium to do better work on predicting the future. Ultimately, an R&D company is trying to predict the future. So I consider it a blessing that I got to work with some of the most creative people in the space. You’d be amazed at how much Jonathan and the art team, and their visual of what the world looks like, inspires you to create technology that would fit.
Being in a creative environment with super creative people, and then having to draw a realistic technology adaption from that, was a blessing. I mean it’s helped my business enormously. Because they challenge me to think about 20 years from now, and they really came in and say, “Why not? Why won’t this be the way it goes?” You know, in 2006 or 2007 you didn’t have iPhones. And so, just the difference of what’s happened in 10 years. It’s been great that I’ve had to be around these types of thinkers for my own business.
Nate: Does anything else stick out from your time with the team? Any special memories or anecdotes?
Will: I think one of the coolest things about that group of people was their ability to think about what the gamer wanted to see in the video game and their dedication to saying “It wasn’t ours” — they didn’t write the original Deus Ex, they inherited a franchise.
Nate: Those are some huge shoes to fill.
Will: Yeah, some people argue it’s the greatest game ever made.
Nate: It’s a legitimate argument.
Will: This team had an enormous amount of respect for the core ideology, to go back to the original Deus Ex design, and think through that, and then, in my opinion, they not only nailed it from an ideology perspective on both versions, but they’ve actually improved it, and expanded it, and made it applicable.
My kids aren’t going to get their campfire myths and stories and culture from me, singing songs after a big hunt. They’re going to get their myths and cultures and rules from video games. And so, what an exciting way to bring science, technology, even political debate into a venue that 15-year olds with 0% attention span can handle! I think they did a great job doing that. They handled a lot of tough issues in very elegant ways.
Nate: That is a very important point about passing on our culture, and one I think that very few people truly understand. It’s another reason why video games have become such an important element of modern society. Whether people understand them or not, they’ve become just as important to us as movies, television, and even literature.
But wrapping up: what’s next for you? Working on more Deus Ex stuff, or are you branching out in some other areas?
Will: No, I’m pretty focused, right? So I don’t work on video games, I just work on Deus Ex, because I care about neurotechnology. I’ll work on this as long as they’ll have me.
What I’m seeing is that, in my business which is moving away from hardware-like implants like pacemakers, to becoming “What can we do with neurotechnology, like virtual reality, like augmented reality?” Some of these concepts are starting to merge in ways that you say, well, the video game is an immersive environment with a fantasy. Technically, your brain is making a hologram when it’s bringing in information from your eyes anyway. So any good neuroscientist will tell you that 80% of what you visualize as part of your field of view is a hologram; you’re not actually seeing that. I think there are really dramatic ways that will change human health in ways that are great.
We’ve got 30 million patients with cognitive issues that don’t have a voice to complain, to know how big a problem this is. But most importantly, how exciting would it be if the entire human race got 30% smarter? We’d start to solve bigger, harder problems. We’d get off this planet. So I’m really excited about the prospect of Human 2.0 driven by a neurotechnology revolution. And so I’ll stay working on this for the rest of my life.
Nate: Sign me up. And thank you for taking the time to speak with me.