Thought-based Computing? No Problem for Your Monkey Brain

It's well known that your brain can automate certain tasks like walking or playing the guitar. But new research out of the University of California, Berkeley demonstrates that our brains might be just as apt at controlling PCs. That is, with nothing more than thoughts.


In the experiments, rhesus monkeys (an adorable specimen above, courtesy of Chi Liu) were implanted with not-so-adorable electrodes in their brains, and they were able to use their thoughts to control a cursor on a computer screen. That's actually been shown to work before; what surprised scientists was the monkeys' ability to repeat cursor-based tasks day after day with proficiency—and without recalibrating the machine, a major hassle. In the field of neuroprosthetics, this is considered "unprecedented," says the IEEE online. The monkey's brain is able to develop motor memory for a thought-action the same way it would for an actual motor function.

This ability should be applicable to humans as well and has led scientists to believe that people with varying degrees of paralysis will one day be able to perform complex computer-aided tasks effortlessly. The trick will be keeping the electrodes tied to the same set of specific neurons, something prior experiments hadn't tried. But keeping track of individual brain cells is a challenging task; the obstacle between experimentation and implementation will be figuring out how to reliably do just that.

[Via IEEE Spectrum]

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  • Manjit Syven Birk

    Did you catch this piece about the Brain-Twitter interface here:

    I have a great personal interest in how we interface with media beyond these interesting developments related to physical interfaces. Dr Donald Struss was asked recently on a Canadian TV program where he would rate the understanding of the human brain on a scale of 1 to 10. He estimated at about "1" !!

    That is probably in my estimation the single most point of understanding that I think separates our century with all other prior centuries. I don't like participating in conversations about entities such as Facebook or Twitter because they are containers that operate from a tribal meme.

    The age of the mind (which is what I think we are entering) isn't tribal at all, this isn't an age of reason either, it is simply a starting line for comprehending and understanding the biggest human secret of all, which is all that which happens in our head. The starting point is how we view our own thinking and the discovery point from there on is currently mostly in the field unknown. It is difficult to see what people are doing right these days because the noise of what humans do wrong is much louder, but there is also a tremendous amount of good stuff happening, and I come to Fast Company to focus on that - if only to get off that negativity soapbox myself.


  • Freddy Nager

    I've got an idea: Instead of torturing a helpless animal, how about the scientists stick the electrodes in their own brains? That way, they'd know for certain if it works for humans. And maybe they'd learn a little something about empathy. I'm not a member of PETA, but this kind of animal testing just to satisfy human curiosity seems out of place in 2009.