Robotic Monkey Arms

Man I love the title of this post. A couple days ago, the journal Nature published a report about monkeys that have learned to control a robotic arm with their thoughts, via a sensor implanted in their brains. Let me write that again. The monkeys can control robots with their brains. This is seriously cool stuff.

This is not entirely groundbreaking. Scientists have been working with this stuff for a while, and have been able to use brain waves to control simple things, like a cursor on a screen. I could be mistaken, but I think some of the technology started with the Air Force, which was researching thought-controlled computers for aircraft.

It sounds like this experiment was a serious step forward, however. You can read the NY Times article here, but I’ll summarize things quickly. The monkeys first learned to control the mechanical arm with a joystick, to get a feel for its movements. Then a chip was implanted on their their motor cortices , a portion of the brain that controls hand and arm movements. At first, the scientists used the computer to help the monkeys move the arm, but after a couple days, the animals could do it themselves.

Here’s a mental image: The monkey sits with its arms restrained. Using its thoughts, it causes the mechanical arm to reach out and grab food, which it moves to its mouth and eats. The researchers said that the animals even learned to adjust movements to compensate for sticky food.

This has obvious implications for prosthetics, but the long-term implications are so much bigger. Nearly everything humans do depends on our body’s ability to manipulate the world around us. Brain-technology interfaces could change the way we use computers, the way we drive, the way we work. More abstractly, they will change what it means to be human.

My friends will tell you that this is one of my favorite topics of discussion. After a few beers, I just won’t shut up about this stuff. The story of humanity is really the story of technology. From the club to the iPhone, we better ourselves by bettering our technology. A kid with a computer has access to information that people would have killed for only decades earlier.

Things are changing, however. Faster computers, nano- and bio-technology, brain-computer interfaces, better understanding of our our own biology…These things make new technology fundamentally different, in my opinion. We’re approaching a time when our technological potential outweighs our biological potential. When technology really makes us superhuman. Maybe this is the so-called Singularity…I don’t know. What I do know is that the future will bring closer integration between technology and our bodies and minds.

Sign me up for robotic monkey arms of my very own.

Motorcycle Repair

I got my motorcycle out of my parents’ garage last week, and it’s had some problems this year. There was a short in the ignition switch, and the bike would sometimes die for a split second. At cruising speeds, this wasn’t a problem, but at low speeds, it would stutter and lurch. Not good.

Thanks to the labor union at work (long story) my hours have been cut back, and I had the day off today. I decided to tackle the ignition problem. There’s an active forum on Yahoo Groups for Honda Nighthawk owners, and I found some advice on disassembling and cleaning the ignition switch.

I pulled off the headlight housing, disconnected and labeled the dozen or so connections inside of it, unbolted the horns, and pulled off the fuse cover. I could then remove the lock cylinder and ignition switch. I was even able to separate the ignition switch from the lock without breaking the little plastic tabs. When I opened up the ignition switch, I saw that a solder connection had broken.

I pushed the bike closer to an electrical outlet, re-soldered the connection, put it all back together and it runs like a champ. It’s a pretty sweet bike, and the community of riders is really helpful.

Check out the pictures: