Watching the first kick of the football at the start of this year's World Cup was a very special moment, as the kick was taken by a paraplegic wearing an amazing mind-controlled exo-skeleton.
Juliano Pinto, a 29-year-old Brazilian man suffering from paralysis in his lower body, was able to control the legs of the special suit using his thoughts alone. The suit, known as the "Mindwalker" , is part of a research study entitled the Walk Again Project, an international collaboration involving several universities worldwide which is focusing on the use of cutting edge technology to liberate those with severe paralysis.
Lead robotic engineer Gordon Cheng, at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, explained that an incredible amount of specialised technology has gone into the making of the suit, which is being tested by a group of eight volunteers. To activate the suit, test subjects are required to wear a cap that records their brain signals and sends them to a computer, which then converts the neuro-messages into movement. In order to make the process feel more lifelike for the user, the suit is also fitted with a host of sensors that detect information about pressure and temperature and sends the relevant sensations back to their arms.
The project is led by Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and he and his team predict that, with some further refining, they could have a marketable product available within five years.
"We're going to make it more lightweight and smooth out the movements," said Jeremi Gancet of Space Application Services in Zaventem, Belgium, a deputy coordinator on the project, "and possibly even incorporate it all into a pair of pants to make it a little less 'Robocop'."
So, in time, these real-life cyborgs could soon become the norm, with machines replacing a variety of physical deficiencies or impairments and giving the disabled a new lease of life. This is a very exciting prospect, and one of the areas where science could truly benefit mankind.
The idea of melding man and machine is also being explored in another project in Berlin, again focusing on the development of thought-controlled machinery. The study, which is being conducted by scientists at the Institute for Flight System Dynamics at Technische Universität München (TUM) and Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin) is entitled Brainflight and is specifically concentrating on the application of thought control in aircraft piloting.
“A long-term vision of the project is to make flying accessible to more people,” explained aerospace engineer Tim Fricke, who is head of the project at TUM. “With brain control, flying could become easier."
The new system is employing electroencephalography (EEG) to detect brain waves which are then converted using an algorithm developed by scientists from Team PhyPA (Physiological Parameters for Adaptation) at TU Berlin, which then deciphers electrical potentials and converts these into control commands. The aim is to make life in the cockpit much easier for pilots; a reduction in their physical workload would have positive safety benefits, and they would have more freedom to move around and address other manual tasks.
So far, the new mental technique is proving to be very successful even amongst test subjects with very little cockpit experience, with levels of accuracy being displayed that would meet the standards required for flying licence tests, even in poor visibility conditions.
“One of the subjects was able to follow eight out of ten target headings with a deviation of only 10 degrees,” reported Fricke.
There would need to be some adjustments to normal flight systems if the thought commands were introduced as common practice, however; for example, it can be important for pilots to feel force feedback from their controls but this element is missing in the new technique. This and other issues would therefore need to be addressed before the method is adopted into regular use, but researchers are confident that alternative feedback methods can be found.
Scientists, then, are thinking their way to a mind controlled future, but there is another, more sinister side of the double-edged sword of the "mind control" concept which focuses not on using the mind to control objects, but on the use of objects to control our minds.
A DARPA-funded project at MIT has developed a cutting edge remote control system that uses external light sources to affect the proteins responsible for neuron activity inside the brain, a technique known as "optogenetics". Optogenetics is the term given to the ability to manipulate individual neuronal circuits, and using this technology, scientists are able to control brain activity by implanting a light source, such as light-sensitive bacteria, onto proteins in the brain which then respond to light stimulation. By shining light on neurons, the light-sensitive proteins can be directed to suppress or stimulate electrical signals within cells.
The neurons are genetically engineered to produce light-sensitive proteins known as opsins, which are channels or pumps that influence electrical activity by controlling the flow of ions in or out of cells. A light source, such as an optical fiber, must then be inserted into the brain to control the selected neurons, but these implants can be tricky to put in place and are not always compatible for use in every type of experiment.
Now MIT engineers have developed a light-sensitive molecule that enables neurons to be silenced noninvasively, using an external light source, negating the need for an implanted optical fiber. The new protein, known as Jaws, also allows a larger volume of tissue to be influenced at any one time. Rather than being engineered, the new alternative was found in the natural world from opsins used by microbes to detect light in their environment.
"This exemplifies how the genomic diversity of the natural world can yield powerful reagents that can be of use in biology and neuroscience," said Ed Boyden, project leader and a member of MIT's Media Lab and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Boyden, who is also an associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, and his team unveiled details of the new protein in the June 29 issue of Nature Neuroscience.
The system has been termed "Non-Invasive Brain Control", leaving us under no illusion as to its potential purpose, though in a recent press release, the technology is purported to be aimed at eradicating epilepsy and other neurological disorders, and even to restore lost vision. In an associated video, the senior biology editor for the journal Nature (Asia), I-han Chou, cites the system's promise for behavior and personality alteration, glossing over any ethical considerations and vaguely making reference to a "fun fantasy future" ten years hence where we could all be operating at a higher level using various brain enhancements or implants.
In fairness, "Jaws" has been shown to restore the light sensitivity of retinal cells and return sight to visually-impaired mice, and it is thought that it could be utilised to shut down the type of misfiring brain neurons observed in brain disorders such as epilepsy. The system is a long way off mainstream application, however, and much more research is required.
"Since these molecules come from species other than humans, many studies must be done to evaluate their safety and efficacy in the context of treatment," explained Boyden.
If used ethically, then "Non-Invasive Brain Control" could provide an almost miraculous solution for blindness and other brain disorders, but the ethical implications must also be seriously considered, as this type of technology could be incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands.
Combine "Brainflight" with "Non-Invasive Brain Control" and we enter a whole new dimension of worrying potentials. Mind controlled aircraft could be soaring through the skies of the future, their pilot's mental processes being remotely controlled by untraceable influences that could steer the aircraft into causing unthinkable horrors. Even the "Mindwalker" suits could be vulnerable to misuse, perhaps being created to respond to remote thought activation and causing their wearers to commit crimes against their will.
The possibilities are, it seems, as limitless as the potential of our minds, but if that mind can be controlled by another, then a mind-controlled future could be a scary place indeed...
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Those interested in our evolving future should also check out this week's Special Interview, where Whitley Strieber outlines the "new world" that the visitors have in mind for mankind.
Wishing everyone in the United States a very Happy Fourth of July Weekend!