Tech

Scientists Link Monkey Brains to Create Monkey “Brainet”

Featuring Juice!

It’s amazing what the power of science and juice can accomplish!

Brain-machine interfaces are an incredible technology, and we’ve already seen how they can improve lives with robotics and the use of prosthetic limbs, and more entertaining displays like mind-controlled flying quadrotor duels. But scientists at Duke University Medical Center recently upped the ante by completing an experiment involving multiple monkeys controlling a single machine at once – or, in this case, a virtual robotic arm.

The test subjects in this experiment – three wise monkeys, if you want – each had their brains connected to a computer via electrodes. The monkey’s brains weren’t connected to each other, but the interface allowed the three monkeys to more or less combine their brains and work in what the scientists call a “brainet” to control the virtual robotic arm and reach a target.

The scientists staggered their experiment. In the first phase, they hooked each individual monkey up to a computer program that controlled an animated arm. If the monkey was able to manipulate the arm and reach a target on the screen, they were given juice.

In subsequent experiments, the three monkeys were tasked with working together, each controlling only a single dimension of movement on a single arm. They succeeded at this, as well. And you know what that means: More juice! The researchers called this synchronized brain work a “superbrain”, or a combination of all three of their brains together.

Apparently, the scientists later performed a similar experiment with a group of four rats, which they did connect to each other. While they didn’t accomplish their goal quite as well as the monkeys, the rats did manage a solid 61% success rate.

Is that worth a juice? I don’t know; I’m not a scientist.

Previous experiments with brain-machine interfaces include FlyingBuddy2, which was a tech that used wireless EEG headsets to read brain activity and allow users to control a drone. Researchers could simply think right to make the quadrotor fly forward, or think push to make it fly up. Oh, and of course blink to take pictures. What looked really fun was the possibility of quadrotor mind battles, but that’s probably a more niche application.

What could so-called “brainets” mean for humans, though? Are we heading toward a Pacific Rim-esque future of mind-melding giant robots? A networked hive mind, perhaps? The horrible, terrible future of social media? Maybe, maybe not. However, the article on this study over at New Scientist contains quite a few musings from those in the field. It’s difficult to tell how linking brains, either collectively to a separate machine or directly together, would play out in humans. While it could make various tasks easier, it could also leave us open to bizarre privacy concerns, or even the case of thoughts accidentally leaking out and others picking them up.

We’re a far, far way from any of that, but it’s good to consider these possibilities before diving headfirst into them. Personally, I’m not sure I’d ever feel comfortable hooking myself up to a computer that could potentially read my thoughts. Then again, technology marches on at an intense pace, and there are basic technologies I use today, such as Apple watches or tablets or, heck, even something like YouTube, that seemed distant when I was younger, and would have felt like science fiction even half a century ago. But new things appear, and we use them, and eventually they become second nature!

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Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.