Mind over Matter: Flying Drones and Controlling Prosthetics with Your Brain

Tags: Mind Control, Technology, Prosthetics, Drones, Neural Sensors, Natural Interface Design, W Ned Livingston

W Ned Livingston by W Ned Livingston

An early 2008 model myoelectric prosthetic (And Owen Wilson)
photo By Petty Officer 2nd Class Greg Mitchell of the United States
Navy (DVIDS Archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mind control may no longer mean what you think it means. Quite the opposite of the Orwellian concept of totalitarian rule by controlling the thoughts of the masses, since the beginning of the new millennium, "thought control" has come to mean, "control of artificial constructs using only one's thoughts." And that transformation began, ironically enough, in Soviet Russia, in 1964, with the introduction of the myoelectric prosthetic arm.

 Normally, muscles are controlled by nerve impulses from the brain. Nerve impulses, themselves, are bioelectric signals which can be detected by sensitive electronic detectors. Myoelectric arms use the signals from existing nerves in a limb remnant to activate electric motors in a prosthetic arm, the same as they would have activated muscles in the real arm. The sensors are typically attached to the skin and are notoriously finicky, regarding correct contact and moisture, for carrying the miniscule nerve impulses out to the arm's control system. In addition, if the afflicted person has suffered spinal cord damage, there are simply no signals going to whatever   remains of the limb.

 In an effort to make the human-prosthetic interface more "natural", by 2002, scientists were well on their way to creating a direct link from the brain, in the form of neural implants that allowed control of a computer cursor. Then further, in 2003, the implanted sensors allowed the control of a mechanical arm, directly from the brain.

 Unfortunately, the neural implants of that time were incredibly unwieldy, typically including a small box, for amplifying and processing the brain's extremely weak signals, to be literally screwed onto the top of the user's skull. In addition, there was a large bundle of cables running from the sensor box. The impracticality of that arrangement had some researchers, in 2009, revisiting an older methodology, and the "muscle reinnervation" approach, very similar to the myoelectric method, was developed. Once again, though, if the patient had suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury, there was simply no signal from the brain for muscle reinnervation to work with.

 Fortunately for direct thought control technology, also in 2009, advances in miniaturization were making implantable wireless neural sensors practical, and systems for not only controlling ever more natural-seeming prostheses were being developed, by 2012, the limbs were able to send feedback to the user.

 For anyone not physically damaged who wished to use the direct neural interface technology, there continued to be a serious downside, namely, the brutally invasive nature and cost of implanting even a wireless neural interface.

 Not only was that a sad state of affairs for the gaming industry, it was completely unacceptable to the military, who had been nurturing and funding the majority of direct neural technology.

 Most notably, in air combat, he who shoots first wins; he who shoots second had better have good reflexes. One need not dredge up the movie (or novel), Firefox to understand how direct neural input would vastly increase the capabilities of a jet fighter pilot. Indeed, military drone pilots, who fly grueling, extended reconnaissance and observation missions suffer more fatigue than necessary due to the "external" nature of the remote control consoles they fly from. If, instead, they could recline in a comfortable chair, with the drone simply an extension of their bodies, fatigue would be at an absolute minimum.

 June 5, 2013, the online version of Nature featured an article extolling the extraordinary benefits, to handicapped people, of a new wearable, external neural interface. Interestingly, the researchers chose a toy helicopter as a "test prosthetic".

 In recent months, there has been much political and social debate over the possibility of unmanned drones flying over U.S. territory. How much debate will there be when no one knows they are drones

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