Posted October 2002
What would life be like if people could
move things with their minds? By sheer will, would it be possible
to control machines without ever having to touch them?
It sounds like the beginning of the 1970s
television series "The Six Million Dollar Man" and
"The Bionic Woman," but this is actually happening
at Duke University and MIT. Scientists at the two schools
have been performing experiments aimed at making mind control
In their experiment, scientists at Duke
University wired the brain of a monkey named Belle up to a
network connection that transmitted her thoughts to MIT. Belle
would use her arm to move a joystick in order to dispense
food. Six hundred miles away, the electronic signals from
Belle's brain were transmitted to MIT, where a robot arm matched
her movements exactly.
The process works by measuring the electrical
activity in Belle's brain - specifically, the activity that
commands physical movement. By studying the neurons in her
brain, scientists were able to determine which signals were
specific to different movements. The next step was to attach
Belle's brain to a receiver that could translate her thoughts
to a robot arm.
It may sound like fantasy, but it actually
is not too different from what our brains go through to move
our arm. When you move your arm, you are "thinking"
about it in a subconscious fashion. Basically, you "will"
your arm to move.
When you were a baby, you did not know
which neurons to fire to move your limbs smoothly. However,
as you grew and developed, your body began to learn how to
"will" your limbs to move. In a similar fashion,
a brain can be trained to move something to which it is wired.
Experiments based on this remote control
technology date back 20 years, when a scientist at Johns Hopkins
University began studying a monkey's brain to determine what
signals were released from neurons when certain movements
happened. The original data was random and unrefined. Today,
scientists at Duke and MIT have narrowed the signals down
to a point that they can specifically detect them and transmit
them over network lines.
Earlier experiments with rats showed that
the creatures could easily make the transition from moving
their arms along side the remote control robot arm to automatically
willing their arm to move.
Although this research is still in its
infancy (many problems must be overcome, such as more specific
data on neuron firings, miniaturization of hardware, and cost
issues), the results could be incredibly beneficial in the
future. Perhaps one day, people who have lost limbs or become
paralyzed can have a new opportunity to interact with the
outside world. Perhaps one day, the concept of a "Six
Million Dollar Man" or a "Bionic Woman" will
no longer be a fantasy.
Use the Internet to research robots
and how they are controlled. Design a showcase that visually
depicts how robots can be controlled by sheer will.