Researchers from Duke University and MIT have carried out weird experiment - the test monkey was able to control robot arm (located 600 miles away) via its brain signals. The monkey (in Duke University) was wired via Internet to a very simple robot arm (in MIT) that copied two of the animals’ actions - moving its arm left or right and retrieving food.

The scientists implanted 96 electrodes, each less than the diameter of a human hair, into multiple regions of the monkey's brain and recorded the output of these electrodes as the animals learned reaching tasks, including reaching for small pieces of food. The mass of neural signal data was fed into a computer, which analyzed the brain signals and tried to predict the trajectory of the monkey's hand. But this was not easy. Electrical signals issued by the brain to flex the elbow muscle, for example, can be swamped by a morass of mental instructions: everything from ‘scratch that annoying leg itch,’ to the date of Aunt Minnie’s birthday.

The team have found a fairly simple solution to this. Working only on the brain’s movement-control center, the ‘motor cortex’, they first measured the activities of individual monkey neurons each time the animal completed a very simple action, such as moving its hand to the left. The greater the measured activity, the greater the neuron’s importance in this task. They assigned each nerve cell a number to reflect this - double the activity, double the number. So these values can now be used to predict and generate movement. Measuring a neuron’s activity at a particular moment and multiplying this by its corresponding numerical ‘coefficient’ gives a clue to the movement about to occur. Adding up the results for different neurons brings the clues together to reveal the answer - the hand is about to move left, down or whatever. A computer can thus transform each moment’s ‘answer’ into robotic movement, while already calculating what the next move should be.

I liked the words of one professor commenting this experiment: When we initially conceived the idea of using monkey brain signals to control a distant robot across the Internet, we were not sure how variable delays in signal transmission would affect the outcome. Even with a standard TCP/IP connection, it worked out beautifully. It was an amazing sight to see the robot in my lab move, knowing that it was being driven by signals from a monkey brain at Duke. It was as if the monkey had a 600-mile-long virtual arm. Of course he noticed nothing, I doubt that he used 28800 dial-up Internet connection.

The idea to control devices by the power of thought over large distances is not new. Brain controlled robots are cool, but I personally don't like hundred tiny wires going into my brain. Don't like so much, that prefer keeping my brain virgin to controlling robots :-)