Scientists use thought to pilot helicopter drone

Researchers have just announced the successful flight of a mini helicopter piloted using brainwaves. The breakthrough gives disabled people hope, but critics fear it will undermine humanity.

Remote controlled helicopters have been around for some time now, but the one built by Professor Bin He and his students at the University of Minnesota is different. It can be piloted without any control pad, steered through an obstacle course by the power of thought alone.

This technological miracle is based around a special cap which can, at least crudely, read a person’s mind. Brain cells communicate with each other with tiny electric charges. Different thoughts make different parts of the brain activate – and when millions of brain cells light up all at once, the electrical disturbance is significant enough to be detectable by sensitive electrodes worn next to the scalp.

Detecting brain cells lighting up is one thing. Working out what that means is another. We are still miles away from being able to translate most brain signals back into thoughts and feelings – but with enough electrodes, and a good computer, it is possible to tell when someone is thinking about moving different muscles, say their left or right hand.

Once that bit is done, the rest is easy. The pilot wears the cap and thinks about gripping with one or both fists. The computer decodes the signals and sends instructions to the drone: left fist means turn left, right fist means turn right, and so on.

This is an important step forward for what engineers call mind-machine interfacing: connecting the human mind directly to robots and other machines. The list of possible uses is impressive. Doctors dream of wheelchairs or artificial limbs that will respond to thought; of mechanical eyes or ears that can beam information directly to someone’s neurons.

But in the more distant future, the technology could serve less noble purposes: we could have robotic assistants directed by thought; mechanical limbs for strength and toughness. Soldiers could pilot remote gun platforms into battle. Meanwhile, brains could tap into information streams from virtual realities or video games. If mind-machine interfaces get good enough, the line between human and machine might blur, or even disappear entirely.

Cyborg future

This will strike many people as a terrifying prospect. Critics say it is grotesque and unnatural to mess with the human body. If we turn ourselves into cyborgs, adding machine parts to our flesh and blood, we will have turned ourselves into monsters.

But in a way, the whole history of the human species is one of mechanical self augmentation. Instead of sharp teeth, we made swords and arrows. Instead of fur, we wove cloth. We cannot go fast on our two legs, so we invented the wheel. Perhaps this new technology is really just more of the same.

You Decide

  1. If a scientist offered to graft a robotic extra limb onto your body, would you accept?
  2. Is your mobile phone like a part of your body?

Activities

  1. Make a list of the top five most vital tools in human history, briefly explaining why your choices matter.
  2. At the moment, machines can only follow very simple instructions from the brain. Draft a design for a mind-controlled machine that would be useful in everyday life and that would use no more than five different control signals from the pilot.

Some People Say...

“The human body is weak and should be replaced.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This cyborg stuff is all far in the future right?
Not really. For one thing, the speed at which this technology is moving is incredible. Computer power doubles every 18 months or so, and as it grows, the ability of machines to read our minds increases. Things that seemed like science fiction just ten years ago are rapidly becoming science fact.
Still, I don’t expect to see people with extra robotic limbs anytime soon.
Maybe not in the way you are imagining. But think about it – millions of people now have a machine attached to them all the time. It augments human memory; it allows your vocal communication to travel vast distances and to hear things happening miles away. In a lot of ways, it is like a cyborg attachment, but we call it by the unthreatening name of ‘mobile phone’.

Word Watch

Electrodes
An electrode is just an exposed terminal in an electrical circuit, made of some conductive metal and attached to a non conductive or semiconductive surface – in this case the scalp. When millions of brain cells fire at the same time, it creates an electrical ripple in the skull, which flows onto the electrode and can then be read by a computer.
Mechanical eyes
This has already been done, at least crudely. A simple light sensor, implanted in the eye of a blind person, can send electrical signals to their optic nerve. Over time, the brain learns to interpret the new signals, giving a limited but still useful level of artificial vision.
Cyborgs
The term ‘cyborg’ was coined in the 1960s to describe a creature that was part machine and part biological. The word is a combination of cybernetic and organic. Cyborgs have been appearing in science fiction ever since, from Robocop or Star Trek ‘s Borg, to modern borderline cases like Iron Man.

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