We all know what happens when you let a monkey get behind the wheel.
However, researchers at Duke saw past this pun and found another use for monkeys operating vehicles. Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis wanted to study the way monkeys work with brain-machine interfaces so his team implanted tiny microfibers into the brains of two monkeys and used them to record brain activity that was then inputted into a computer. Using the fibers, the monkeys were able to control wheelchairs -- and not with their hands and feet, but just by using their minds. Nicolelis's research showed that the wheelchair eventually became an extension of the monkeys' bodies, at least of their brains.
All fears of the looming Singularity aside, brain-machine interfaces have been around for a while now and have even been tested in humans. Their potential is limitless to the disabled, especially to those who are fully paralyzed and cannot physically operate wheelchairs. But why stop at wheelchairs? “We are not focused on the wheelchair—we’re actually developing robotic exoskeletons in parallel to this,” says Nicolelis. Well, don't let us stand in the way! A robotic exoskeleton that can be controlled via direct brain input would significantly alter the lives of people born with physical disabilities and those who sustain paralysis from major injuries and diseases. It would level the playing field in an unprecedented way.
Of course, we are still a ways off from full physical equality for disabled people, but there is hope. While the microfibers have not been tested on humans, they did show promise within the monkeys, causing less brain damage and lasting longer than other types of implants have in the past. After some further research, the team may even be able to start testing out their microfibers on human beings. A major breakthrough in the way we treat physically disabled people could soon be upon us.