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Monkey Business

Of course, in its 44 years, DARPA has turned countless “ifs” into reality, and in doing so has helped change the world.

Tether says he does see a revolution in one project now under way: the Brain Machine Interface program.

In this program researchers appear to have found a way to tap a monkey’s thoughts to control a robot arm. The monkey, in a North Carolina laboratory, was trained to move a joystick when it saw a signal. Electrical impulses in its brain were used to control a robotic arm and move a joystick in a lab at MIT. When the monkey’s joystick was taken away and the signal given, the monkey didn’t move, but the robot arm did.

The researchers thought they had tapped into the motor signal that controlled the monkey’s muscles, Tether says, “but they actually had tapped into the thought signal. The monkey was thinking about moving the joystick, and that is what was transmitted and moved the joystick up at MIT.”

DARPA has launched a major program in this area in an effort to determine the mental codes and how feedback can be delivered, he says. If that can be done, it would open the door to mental control of computers and other systems, plus the possibility of brain-to-brain communication. In civilian life, it could mean thought-controlled prostheses that move as though they are flesh and blood.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to be, but I do know that this is going to happen,” Tether says. “This one, if we can do it, will truly be revolutionary.”

Alan Moorse is a freelance writer living in East Greenbush, N.Y.

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Rensselaer Magazine: June 2002
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