Evolution of the cyborg

Cathy Hutchinson controls a robotic arm and takes a sip of coffee. She is directing the arm via signals transmitted directly from the motor cortex section of her brain

What is it?

A team at Brown University in the United States, led by Professor John Donoghue, has developed an electronic device, called BrainGate, that is surgically implanted into a patient’s brain where it detects the electrical impulses of adjacent neurons. The device links to an external computer that deciphers patterns in the impulses and converts them into commands that can be used to control a mouse pointer on a computer screen or even a robotic arm.

Recalling our article from June last year, Kevin Warwick, the world’s first cyborg, we are pleased to discover that research into this sophisticated area of neuroscience is continuing apace.

The astonishing characteristic of the BrainGate study that takes Warwick’s research a significant step forwards is that it utilises patients who have suffered spinal trauma resulting in quadriplegia. Hutchinson (above) has not possessed control over her body for fifteen years, yet the study shows that her motor cortex still functions. For fifteen years her brain has been trying to send signals to her body, but up until now they have had nowhere to go.

Moving from controlling a mouse in two-dimensional space to the complexities of three dimensions is a substantial jump in complexity requiring fine depth perception and spatial co-ordination. Professor Donoghue says that an important success of the study is the ability of the team’s software to differentiate between detailed neural signals controlling position, speed of movement and whether a patient wants to open or close her hand.

Though more research is required into both the neuroscience and robotics, including the establishment of a wireless interface between BrainGate and computer, we can’t get over the radiant smile that spreads across Hutchinson’s face after she takes her sip of coffee. The article that caught our attention, and a video of the experiments, can be viewed on The Age, here.

What do we think?

We feel like this research, and the extraordinary nature of its successes, lies at the frontier of an exciting new advancement for all of humankind. The medical possibilities are easy to imagine: we will be able to replace lost limbs with robotic prostheses wired directly into the brain; we will even be able to install implants that skip broken segments of nerve tissue and overcome paralysis.

The possibilities extend even further: trade, mining, construction, telecommunications, social media, travel, space exploration… All are ready to be transformed by the next revolution in computing: from powerful microprocessors in our bags and pockets, to even smaller chips inside our bodies:

  • Hard drives that record every moment of every experience of every sense.
  • Photographic lenses behind our eyes.
  • Phone and email inside our conscious minds.
  • The vast knowledge of the internet accessible by a thought.

It may only be the beginning, but it seems that this brave new world is already here.

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