Back in October the Washingon Post had an article about some researchers at Duke University working with monkeys and a robot arm. Essentally they implanted wires in the monkeys’ heads that let a computer record some brain signals. Then they let the monkeys play with a joystick that controls a robot arm in a full 3-D range of motion — they learned to use the arm to pick up objects and move them, including varying their grip on the joystick to vary the grip used by the arm. The whole time the computer was recording the brain signals and the corresponding robot movements.
The researchers then unplugged the joystick, and when the computer saw brain signals it recognized it moved the robot arm accordingly. That in and of itself is astounding, but it gets better. While they’re watching, the monkey realizes on her own that the joystick isn’t necessary anymore and simply stops using it, controlling the robot arm entirely with her mind.
Let that sink in a minute, and think about the possibilities. Enabling people with paralysis to accomplish complex tasks is one area with immediate potential, but it’s far bigger than that. Imagine all the things you could do with more accurate and responsive control of a robot arm (or two, or…?) than you could ever get with manual controls (i.e. via a joystick). Obviously you wouldn’t want to have hundreds of wires sticking out of your head, and you wouldn’t want to have to stay attached to a computer, but I believe these are resolvable limitations (the no-wires-in-the-head one being the trickier of the two, of course).
Researchers at the University of Calgary have found that nerve cells grown on a microchip can learn and memorize information which can be communicated to the brain.
With the monkeys, it was one-way information — the computer just “listened” to the signals the monkeys’ brains put out. Now we’re talking about going the other direction — generating signals that the brain can pick up and, in theory, understand. As my friend Craig rightfully stated, the implications of the first discovery are staggering. The implications of this latest accomplishment simply make my mind reel.