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.


2 Responses to “Robotic Monkey Arms”

  1. Ann on June 1st, 2008 2:03 pm

    NO WAY.

    I haven’t read your blog in a hundred years; just yesterday I was in Goody’s telling Anna about how I watched a monkey eat a roll, using robot arms. but afterward I illustrated “monkey eating noises,” so my summary of the story wins.


  2. Quinn on September 5th, 2008 8:29 pm

    Dude, I so want robotic monkey arms!


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