The Status of Brain-Machine Interfaces

I mentioned in the Trendwatch the other day that Popular Science has a cover article in January about Brain-Machine Interfaces. Well, the article is now online, and it is a brilliant one. Wetware has mentioned much of the research discussed in the article before (see the Brain technologies category), but Carl Zimmer‘s article is a well written first hand account – which I unfortunately cannot match.

Here are just a few interesting bits from the article:

“Take another look at those cables: They snake into the back of the computer and then out again, terminating in a cap on the monkey’s head, where they receive signals from hundreds of electrodes buried in its brain. The monkey is directing the robot with its thoughts.”

– – –

“To test this supposition, Chapin and Nicolelis inserted electrodes into a rat’s brain and began monitoring 46 neurons. They then trained the rat to press a lever to get a drink of water, and used the electrodes to record the pattern of signals the animal produced to move its arm. Then Chapin and Nicolelis disconnected the lever from the water supply, so that pressing the lever did nothing. The rat went on pressing the lever, but now the scientists gave the rat a drink of water when it simply produced the “press lever” command in its brain. After a while, the rat stopped bothering to lift its arm, and just thought about lifting it.” (page 3)

Much of the research is funded by DARPA. Wonder why?

“The brain does more than just move arms and legs — it also sends out complex commands that control muscles in the throat, tongue and mouth, creating speech. It’s conceivable that a computer could learn to recognize those commands before they leave the brain and then translate them into words. “You could imagine thinking about talking and having it projected into a room 2,000 miles away,” says Craig Henriquez. “I don’t see that that will be a problem. It’s very, very possible.”” (page 4)

But the current interface technique is – well – not entirely convenient:

“Take the equipment itself. Wires sprout from the implants in a monkey’s head and are jacked into a big signal processor, which in turn is plugged into a computer, which in turn is connected by cables to a robot arm.” (page 5)


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