I am all hopped up about the latest book I’ve read about the brain: Beyond Boundaries by Miguel Nicolelis. The author is a professor of neuroscientist at Duke University who works with the interface between the brain and machines. The first half is a rather dense read, but it’s worth it to get to the stories in the second half. I’ll just lay some of the good stuff on you right now.
Picture, if you will, a monkey playing a computer game in Pennsylvania. The electrical activity in the monkey’s brain is being sent to a computer, and the computer is wirelessly relaying that information to a robot that looks vaguely human. As the monkey plays, the computer learns to detect the brain waves that occur as the monkey is planning to create a physical motion. Within a few seconds, the robot is playing the computer game with it’s own joy stick in synchrony with the monkey. Now comes the cool part: researchers take away the monkey’s joy stick. However, the monkey learns that it can still get a drop of juice for playing the game correctly because the robot will still do whatever the monkey imagines doing. As the monkey sits back, relaxed and motionless, the robot plays games, walks, dances, and basically performs all kinds of monkey shines according to what’s happening in the monkey’s mind. Oh, and by the way, while the monkey is in PA, the robot is in Japan.
It gets better! Readings of the monkey’s brain show that in a short time, along with parts of it’s brain dedicated to controlling it’s own arms, legs, tail and so on, the monkey has now developed a portion of it’s brain that experiences the robot as part of it’s own physical self. There is a brain space that now controls the robot from within the monkey – effortlessly.
Nicolelis and his team are working on creating a steel exoskeleton in the shape of a human body the thinness of a piece of silk. This could be worn by, for example, a quadriplegic patient paralyzed from the neck down. By imagining moving precisely the way we move, the patient could move the exoskeleton, which would move his or her body, and be fully mobile again. Other possibly uses include sending robots to Mars that humans had already incorporated as part of their own bodies. We could sit in our living rooms imagining walking the surface of Mars controlling a robot moving exactly as our own bodies would. Moreover, the robot would send sensory information to our brains just the way our bodies do. We could see, feel, hear, touch, and smell the surface of Mars.
The monkey robot experiments are real. They’ve been done. Now neuroscientists are working on what they call a “brain machine interface.” Two living beings working through a machine could link wirelessly brain to brain. Ancient shamans, healers, and mystics have been doing this for centuries. They just didn’t need machines. I don’t believe we do either, but this fascinating work on the leading edge of science, is validating what we’ve all long suspected. We are linked to one another and to the Universe in a way that far transcends the limits of our individual bodies.
Stay posted, the pace of learning in this field will continue to accelerate. God knows what they’ll think of next.