The world watched in awe this week when American researchers unveiled a video showing a paralyzed woman feeding herself chocolate with a mind-controlled arm. In the video, Jan Scheuermann, a 52-year-old woman who's paralyzed from the neck down, shows a level of control and agility that scientists have never witnessed before. They're calling it an "unprecedented performance" and a "remarkable achievement." And when you imagine how Jan felt when she felt when she fed herself for the first time in a decade, you can understand why.
But this is only the beginning. The technology that powers Jan's mind-controlled arm is also being applied to prosthetics, especially by the military. DARPA's been funding research for years to come up with technology that could let veteran amputees regain the use of their lost limbs. The goal has always been very simple: to create a device that could use the behavior of neurons as input to control a machine. Over the years, scientists have tried a number of different techniques from attaching sensors to the nerves near the lost limb to actually implanting microchips in people's brains.
This is how Jan Scheuermann's mind-controlled arm works. Ten months ago, a brain surgeon implanted two four-millimeter-by-four-millimeter chips into Jan's motor cortex. Each one is equipped with 96 electrodes — twice as many as in the last study — that read the signals coming from nearby neurons. These chips connect to an external computer through wires attached to the Jan's head and sophisticated software translates Jan's thoughts into the arm's movements. In the near future, the scientists hope to develop wireless chips that will do away with the wires.
Researchers say that their most significant achievements lately actually have more to do with software than hardware. And this is also where the technology of mind-controlled robotics move beyond just prosthetics. The algorithms that translate neuron activity could be used for much more, mind-controlled computers for instance. The basic technology has been around for a few years, but as we better understand how the brain works and translate its commands into electrical signals, these devices could reach levels of sophistication only seen in science fiction.
A lot will have to happen before you start dictating your emails by thinking about them, though. The wireless chip technology, for one, will be essential to making this technology portable, but in the long run, it's unlikely that people would want to get brain surgery just so they can mind-control their gadgets. There are other devices that fit around your scull like a crown or a headband, though, and have metal sensors that can read brainwaves through your scalp. That technology is getting really good, really fast. IBM predicts that it a mind-controlled computer could be on the market within the next five years.
And who knows what researchers might find along the way. Science still hardly understands how the brain works, and the kinds of advances that are improving prosthetics could also have applications in neurology and even cancer research. That is, if the idea of putting microchips in our brains doesn't scare everyone off first.