Our Ghost in the Shell dystopian future will be here sooner than you think. A new study published in Nature today demonstrates, for the first time that robotic limbs can successfully be controlled with just the power of the user's mind.
The study, performed by a team at Brown University in collaboration with other research institutions, implanted a computer-mind interface about the size of a pea into a patch of neurons in the motor cortexes of two volunteers—a 58-year-old woman and a 66-year-old man, both quadriplegics. This area of the brain is known to activate when moving the extremities and, with a bit of passive training (watching researchers move the arm and pretending that they were actually doing it), was able to translate the thoughts and neural activity of the volunteers into physical movement by a remote robotic arm.
Cathy Hutchinson, the female volunteer, lost the ability to move her arms and legs after a stroke 15 years ago. However, five years after being implanted for this study, she successfully deployed the remote arm to pick up and drink a bottle of coffee without any human assistance—the first time she's been able to do so in nearly two decades.
Per the study's synopsis:
Here we demonstrate the ability of two people with long-standing tetraplegia to use neural interface system-based control of a robotic arm to perform three-dimensional reach and grasp movements. Participants controlled the arm and hand over a broad space without explicit training, using signals decoded from a small, local population of motor cortex (MI) neurons recorded from a 96-channel microelectrode array. One of the study participants, implanted with the sensor 5 years earlier, also used a robotic arm to drink coffee from a bottle. Although robotic reach and grasp actions were not as fast or accurate as those of an able-bodied person, our results demonstrate the feasibility for people with tetraplegia, years after injury to the central nervous system, to recreate useful multidimensional control of complex devices directly from a small sample of neural signals.
Obviously, it is going to be a few years before this pioneering technology even advances to the point of large clinical trials but the question of human cyberization is no longer one of "if", but "when." [Nature via NYT]