Thursday, May 29, 2008

Monkeys Control Robots

Humans have often feared robots taking over the planet, but monkeys have always rated a close second threat. However, now we know that 'Planet of the Apes' is closer than you think as we know now that monkeys can control robot arms with their thoughts:
Two monkeys with tiny sensors in their brains have learned to control a prosthetic arm with only their thoughts, using it to reach for and grab food and even to adjust for the size and stickiness of morsels when necessary, scientists reported Wednesday.
Joking aside, the technology shows promise for future clinical applications in patients with spinal cord and other neurological injuries:

The report, released online by the journal Nature, is the most striking demonstration to date of brain-machine interface technology, which scientists expect will eventually allow people with spinal cord injuries and other paralyzing conditions to gain more control over their lives. The findings suggest that brain-controlled prosthetics, while not yet practical, are at least technically within reach.

In previous studies, researchers showed that humans who had been paralyzed for years could learn to control a cursor on a computer screen with their brain waves; and that thoughts could move a mechanical arm, and even a robot on a treadmill.

Yet the new experiment demonstrates how quickly the brain can adopt a mechanical appendage as its own, refining movement as it interacts with real objects in real time. The monkeys in the experiment had their own arms gently restrained while they were learning to use the prosthetic one.

While I'm thinking about radiology, its stories like these that give me pause and wonder whether I should have pursued neurology or even neuroscience as a PhD instead. Still, we must always be wary of our future robotic counterparts...



2 comments:

  1. Fascinating. Neuroscience is the next big thing -- it's hot and getting hotter. It's at least as big as bioinformatics / computational biology.

    Have you considered subspecializing in neurorads? It seems to me that you'd have ample opportunities to do neuroscience-type research (e.g., by helping to improve algorithms that pattern-match fMRI states to what the patient is doing, etc.)

    Your classmate

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  2. I'm leaning toward interventional right now, but I have thought about neurorads as well. As much as I find the material fascinating, I am not sure if I have the background to make any significant contribution to the research side of it. Besides, it seems like a lot of people are 'there' already, working on this stuff.

    But, who knows how I'll feel in 5 years, right?

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