January 17, 2008

She Must Be Gunther's Girl...

Just when you thought Japanese robots couldn't get much weirder, along comes a humanoid mecha in Kyoto that's controlled by a monkey in North Carolina.

In an elaborate proof-of-concept experiment, a 12-pound lady rhesus monkey named Idoya walked on a treadmill while watching live video of a 200-pound robot's legs. Electrodes implanted in Idoya's brain sent "walking" signals to the robot over a high-speed Internet connection.

By focusing on the 'bot's limbs, the monkey got to the point where certain neurons in her brain became attuned to syching up her steps with the motion of the mecha. Even when the researchers stopped the treadmill, Idoya was so intent on manipulating the robot that she kept it walking for about three more minutes.


The NY Times has a nicely written explainer article with full multimedia components here (registration required).

Of course, this raises a host of issues, not the least of which is the immediate danger of monkeys taking over the world with their armies of mind-controlled killbots. For instance, why do articles like this *never* delve into the sticky wicket of whether the monkey likes having electrodes driven into her grey matter in the name of science?

But for now, here's my favorite quote from lead researcher Miguel A. L. Nicolelis at Duke University, as reported by the NYT:

"The body does not have a monopoly for enacting the desires of the brain.”

Inventions have a way of slipping past the necessities that birthed them. The drug warfarin, for example, is administered to people under several brand names as an anticoagulant—but it was first developed as rat poison. So what's to stop technology invented to help the paralyzed regain use of their limbs from morphing us into a real world version of Ghost in the Shell? Meh. I like this body better anyway.

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