This year, Marvel’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War introduced the fictional African nation of Wakanda, where exclusive access to a unique metal called vibranium has helped drive the most technologically advanced country on the planet.
This future tech, much of it designed by supergenius scientist and artist Shuri, permeates the movie…but how much of it is real, probable, or possible? Shuri designs for Wakandan infrastructure as well as making tech for Wakanda’s “War Dogs,” including intelligence operatives like Nakia. How much of the movie’s futuristic technology is available to the real-world intelligence officers of today?
As part of our #ReelvsRealCIA series, we decided to pose these questions to one of the CIA’s most innovative scientists. We will call her “Rebecca.” Rebecca not only has a background in the traditional sciences, but also in emerging technologies and digital innovation. Here is Rebecca’s take on how Wakanda’s tech matches up with emerging “real life” tech.
Reel vs. Real: Vibranium
Let’s start with the fictional magic metal itself. You’ve seen it before: vibranium is a major part of Captain America’s shield. The Wakandan isotope can store more energy than any other substance, absorbing all vibrations in the vicinity as well as kinetic energy directed at it. That vibration-storing means that a lot of Wakandan tech is based around sound, and the storing, dampening, and releasing thereof. The vibranium in Black Panther’s suit protects him from kinetic damage, and vibranium sneakers are both super-quiet and amazing shock absorbers for jumping. Those would be great for spies, right? Too bad vibranium isn’t real.
There are some things that are close, though. Tungsten carbide is used to compress materials; at the same time it stores some of that compressive energy and can release it later. Piezoelectric materials transform vibrations into electricity (like kids’ shoes that flash when they run), a simpler form of the way Black Panther’s suit stores kinetic impacts and then releases them as energy blasts.
According to Drexel professor Yury Gogotsi, some of the properties of vibranium can be achieved by the material structure design of advanced nanomaterials. Researchers at Penn State recently discovered diamond nanothreads, which are parallel threads composed of carbon atoms bonded together the way they are in diamonds. These should be able to hold an enormous amount of energy if woven into fabric, making them appealing for spy gear.
Now the magic metal from Wakanda might not exist, but real-life vibranium does. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies engineers working on making Elon Musk’s Hyperloop are inventing a new material they call vibranium. It’s a super-strong alloy made of woven carbon fiber. The alloy itself is eight times stronger than steel and five times lighter. This vibranium is a smart alloy, with thousands of sensors that can wirelessly transmit information and provide immediate data concerning things like temperature, damage, and structural integrity. The Hyperloop is basically the pneumatic tube system the CIA used to use to send documents from one office to another throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’90s: except, of course, the Hyperloop is scaled up to human size and is like the pneumatic tube combined with an electromagnetic railgun.
Using Intelligence Tactically
Wakandan sand tables are one of the first of the fictional technologies shown in the film. 3D representations of figures are formed by sound waves activating vibranium-laced sand.
According to Chladni’s law, different frequencies of sound can cause sand to form different patterns. Shuri and T’Challa use these for data visualization.
When I first saw the sand tables, I immediately thought of the kids’ toy Kinetic Sand or Moon Sand from a couple years ago, and the inFORM project from MIT. Moon Sand is basically moist sand with a little cornstarch in it. It can be formed into fairly detailed shapes and will hold those shapes. It proves, as do sand sculpting competitions, that you can get reasonable resolution with a particulate mixture.
But Wakandan sand tables respond to data and rapid, real-time input. That’s inFORM. Currently the resolution is much bigger than sand but the proof-of-concept is there. According to MIT, inFORM facilitates the real-time movement of physical “pixels” on a table surface that move in accordance with data from a Kinect motion sensing input device. The system allows people to remotely manipulate objects from a distance, physically interact with data or temporary objects, and could open the door to a wide variety of gaming, medical, or other interactive scenarios involving people in remote locations.
Forget 2D pie charts — with the right materials, communication technology, and designers, people will be able to get hands-on with information and work together from different locations.
The fictional tech I want the most? Kimoyo beads.
In the movie, Kimoyo Beads are pieces of advanced communication technology adapted by the Wakandans from vibranium. According to Marvel, each individual is given a Prime Bead at birth and it provides a lifetime worth of medical knowledge plus health data about the individual Wakandan.
In addition to the personal Prime Bead, other beads can do things like capture and project holograms, control devices, and serve as communicators. Functions are triggered by purposeful touch. WAY more covert than asking Siri or Alexa.
You already use capacitive touch interfaces on your phone, but they are all flat. Companies have developed capacitive interfaces that can wrap around 3D objects. Demonstrations at the CES consumer technology conference this year were based around vehicle inputs, but the interfaces can use infrared to differentiate between body parts, meaning that kimoyo beads worn on wrist skin wouldn’t trigger until touched by a fingertip.
Store-and-forward communications (where a message is transmitted from a source and stored at an intermediary device before being forwarded to the destination) is real, and doing so inside something as small as a kimoyo bead is close to being real. Hologram projection is going to be a little more problematic because of the actual physics, light waves, and the space needed. Remote control is here already.
Let’s imagine that the Prime Bead in real life: the bead contains health and medical data from throughout the person’s life, from DNA to identity and souped-up Med-Alert information to data about the person’s exercise, eating, and sleep habits, in addition to an onboard WebMD. In order to securely store such information, you could feasibly use something like blockchain technology. Blockchain, a distributed ledger technology using cryptography, is commonly associated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, but the technology itself and how information is stored could actually revolutionize a number of important industries, including healthcare.
One of the disruptions offered by blockchain is a move away from traditional database architecture to decentralized storage and computing. That, in turn, means no intermediary has to be the data guardian and no central authority can take control of the information. Theoretically, with blockchain-based Web 3.0, each individual can maintain their own identity from birth. This is called “self-sovereign identity” and would include more than just health data. For instance, Wakandans could have their government attest their citizenship claims via blockchain stored in the beads (rather than in glowing vibranium tattoos inside their lower lip).
Self-sovereign identity has a lot of potential benefits, especially as databases containing identity information are increasingly difficult to defend and remain juicy targets for hackers. However, a real identity you wear on your wrist, that’s difficult if not impossible to alter, would be bad news for officers or agents trying to operate covertly.
Clothes Make the Man
Black Panther’s superhero costume, known as the Panther Habit, has always been made of woven vibranium, but Shuri gives the Panther Habit an upgrade when her brother T’Challa assumes the mantle. She offers two options, both composed of nanoparticles. This means T’Challa goes into combat wearing nothing but a skin of teeny tiny machines made from a vibranium alloy that have what is called “swarm intelligence” and can self-replicate. Let’s agree that this is its own kind of courage.
The Panther Habit nanomachines (or “nanites”) are garaged in a ceremonial necklace and emerge to form the Habit and/or helmet on command, after being paired (by something like Bluetooth I assume) with T’Challa’s vibranium behind-ear tattoo. This implies subvocal commands and circuit tattoos, both available and both spy-ish in their own right.
Conveniently or not, as the nanites form the Habit, they also shred any clothing they replace, presumably using those atoms to build more nanites. This is a little more “handwavium” (fiction) than legitimate science, but technologists are doing great things with swarm intelligence for drones right now, so swarm intelligence for nanites is, I suppose, plausible.
Rather than suits for superheroes, in the real world people seem to be more interested in nanites for biotech and medicine, and for detecting toxic chemicals in the environment, but the world’s spy agencies might like outfits that could reform on the fly in order to foil surveillance.
There are a number of ways that kinetic energy sustained from a blow could be redirected and redistributed by a piece of clothing in order to protect the wearer, similar to the way that helmets and shin guards protect the brains and legs of athletes. A Google patents search reveals there are a few sportswear manufacturers working on this technology right now. If any of these work, look for them in military and law enforcement gear soon, and tacti-cool gear soon after that.
Most of the interfaces in Shuri’s lab are holograms, and many characters seem to have a kimoyo bead that projects holograms either as sort of Wakandan FaceTime or PowerPoint.
Holograms are the hot tech right now, and I feel that this technology is where Virtual Reality (VR) was 5 years ago. We’re a ways from medical suites being outfitted with it, but it’s coming along quickly.
Intelligence practitioners might incorporate holographic Heads-Up Displays (HUDs) for operations or holographic projections to illustrate situations to the President or other policymakers.
But No Virtual Cars
During the movie’s South Korea sequence, Shuri (from the comfort and safety of Wakanda) powers up T’Challa’s car and helps her brother pursue Klaue through the streets of Busan. The Wakandan team’s vibranium cars are great in a crash-and-bang style driving gun fight, as the vibranium shell renders bullets useless, but the implication here is of wireless technology that can operate across the entire planet without any lag or delay, and of a seamless mixed reality pilot experience.
There are a lot of elements that would have to work right for this, so it’s firmly fiction right now, but pretty much everyone would love this, including intelligence officers worldwide.
Wakanda keeps itself hidden from the rest of the world by a sort of invisibility cloak that covers the whole nation, and presumably blocks all sorts of radiation, not just light. In real life, I think spy satellites would have picked up the heat, radio waves, microwaves, or other signs of a fully-industrialized country otherwise. (Apparently the internet somehow gets through for the remote-control cars though).
The bad news is that this is physically impossible. The good news is that with vibranium and super-science it’s plausible, and it’s already being done in our real world on a much smaller scale.
You can use lenses to bend light around small objects, like a person’s hand. The lens approach could scale up to hide a vehicle, but only from the person looking through the lens, and only from human vision. You can also use nanotechnology, like Black Panther’s suit, to hide other nanotechnology or something up to the size of a cell. So in theory, Shuri could make every bit of the Panther Habit invisible, but I doubt she wants to.
To hide a nation from the rest of the world, you’d need a combination of metamaterials (material engineered to produce properties that don’t occur naturally) to affect the magnetic components of light and other radiation. Vibranium has interesting magnetic properties that Shuri uses in the kimoyo beads and EMP beads, so a cloak laced with it could give you that. This has to be a physical cloak, though, something like researchers at Boston University and Tufts University made out of silk to block the terahertz band (a wireless communication frequency found between radio waves and infrared light).
Those Lesotho Blankets
Speaking of silk, my second-favorite fictional tech in the movie was the Lesotho (or Basotho) blankets worn by W’Kabi and the border tribe. Who didn’t gasp when they generated hologram riot police shields? Unfortunately, that’s one of the least plausible technologies in the movie, even though Marvel’s used something like it across multiple properties. I guess Halo’s “hard light” shields are just too visually good to pass up.
The light shields are impossible (even if we suspend reality and allowing for vibranium generators to be laced into the blankets) because although light is amazing, it has some clear rules: Light doesn’t stop physical objects, or other light.
As an alternative, it’s theoretically possible someone could create a cloak shield out of vaporized metals. In Physics of the Impossible, physicist Michio Kaku says that you’d need a “plasma window,” a frame in which gas could be heated to 12,000°F, to vaporize metals (even vibranium?) Alternately you might use high-energy laser beams that crisscrossed each other, to vaporize objects, but both of these require more rigid structure than a cloak. Back to carbon nanotubes! If you could weave those into a lattice (or a cloak), they could create a screen of enormous strength, capable of repelling most objects. The screen would be invisible, since each carbon nanotube is atomic in size, but the carbon nanotube lattice would be stronger than any ordinary material. Add in some cool hologram effects, and you could have a pretty nifty shield that would be the envy of any intelligence service operating in a warzone.