Physics: Principles and Problems


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Mind Control
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 machines.

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.


Activity
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.


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Physics: Principles and Problems