Growing up with Transformers toys in the s means that I have a certain affinity for over-the-top movies involving giant robots, so when Pacific Rim came out a few weeks ago, I couldn't have been happier. Yet one thing about it got me thinking back to Nagel's question; the robots in it were controlled by two pilots, whose brains were linked together. So, given that the movie is set pretty much in the immediate future around 10 years from now , how far off are we from that technology being a possibility?
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Brain-computer interfaces , or BCIs, do exactly what the name suggests; they create a direct link between the human brain and a machine to be controlled. Research into BCIs started in the s, when Darpa commissioned work to look into the potential for neural interfaces in jet fighters.
However, subsequent work very quickly turned to whether BCIs could help patients who had been paralysed, or had motor disabilities.
It works by reattaching nerve endings to the prosthetic limb, and then getting a computer to learn to translate motor commands from the brain into limb movements. There's also the possibility that prosthetic limbs can go even further and provide feedback. For example, a Nature paper from described a brain-machine-brain interface in which monkeys controlled a virtual-reality arm in a task that required the animal to search for a visual object. Whenever the arm touched a virtual object, a signal was sent back to the monkey's sensory cortex, which produced virtual touch feedback about the object.
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Most research into BCIs uses a technique called electroencephalography or EEG to record and monitor electrical activity from the brain, via electrodes placed on the scalp. The problem with this technique is that it's not very precise; EEG can't determine the depth in the brain that electrical activity is coming from, and the spatial resolution is poor a single electrode will pick up activity from millions of neurons. However, that doesn't make EEG a useless technique — recently, researchers at the University of California, San Diego attempted to get around these problems by developing a collaborative BCI system.
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