October 13, 2003


Monkeys Control Robotic Arm With Brain Implants (Rick Weiss, Washington Post, 10/13/03).

Scientists in North Carolina have built a brain implant that lets monkeys control a robotic arm with their thoughts, marking the first time that mental intentions have been harnessed to move a mechanical object.

The technology could someday allow people with paralyzing spinal cord injuries to operate machines or tools with their thoughts as naturally as others today do with their hands. It might even allow some paralyzed people to move their own arms or legs again, by transmitting the brain's directions not to a machine but directly to the muscles in those latent limbs.
This is good news for a bunch of obvious reasons. The difficulties, though, are underplayed. Sensory feedback into the brain is going to be more important than this article recognizes and also, I suspect, more difficult. This experiment is yet another paving stone on the road to our post-human future (assuming that we are not yet there). It would be nice to see a little bit more discussion of the issues raised by that future. Should we drive our cars by thought? Should we have implanted cell phones that turn thoughts into digital signals and then, in the recipient's brain, back into thought? How will it change life if brains can be hacked?

But the best news is buried deep in the article. "[N]eurons not usually involved in body movements, including those usually involved in sensory input rather than motor output, were easily recruited to help operate the robotic arm when electrodes were implanted there." The implications of that fact -- for treatment, for future technologies and also for our understanding of our true nature -- are staggering.

Posted by David Cohen at October 13, 2003 12:14 PM

Seeing as how many early adopters of new technologies have sexual uses in mind for that technology, I wonder when we can see a story about a robotic, uh, short arm....

I am only 1/4 joking here.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at October 13, 2003 4:31 PM

I hadn't thought of that. If they do figure out how to provide sensory feedback, we're all going to dissappear into an endless feedback loop until we starve to death.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 13, 2003 4:47 PM

And the Catholics will be able to say they told us so.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 13, 2003 8:57 PM

I've long thought that once a Matrix-like "virtual reality" becomes possible, a significant percent of humanity, possibly even a majority, will spend ALL of their time there.

As that leaves little opportunity to breed, we'll witness a true Darwinistic culling of the species.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 14, 2003 3:55 AM

Additionally, should this technology be perfected before virtual reality, as seems likely, we'll also see undamaged people adding appendages and sensors.
Four arms and hands might be useful, and of course, eyes on the back of your head.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 14, 2003 4:00 AM

Well, there's Orrin's answer as to where the Aliens are: they're in the Matrix.

Posted by: Mike Earl at October 14, 2003 11:04 AM