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The fast macaque monkeys quickly learned to grab treats with their new mechanical arm. What was surprising was the advanced natural motions they developed.  (Source: Andrew Schwartz/University of Pittsburgh)
An outlandish experiment is breaking exciting ground in the world of brain controlled prosthetics

While the jury is still out on whether monkeys deserve human rights, one thing's for sure -- they're good at controlling robotic arms.  In the past, humans have been able to control a computer mouse with brain signals.  In more recent DARPA grant research, prosthetic arms have been implanted in humans with basic control from electrodes on skin or electrodes implanted in muscle.  However, without directly interfacing with nerves, preferably near the brain, it is impossible to gain the fluid motion that human limbs have according to the current line of thought.

Researchers at Caltech recently made breakthroughs in repositionable neural probes, which will help such brain connections be made.  Now, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University have taken the next step and for the first time ever have showcased the use of one of these nerve interfaced limbs with a nonhuman primate.

The researchers selected monkeys for the study due to their anatomical similarities to humans and their strong capacity to learn.  In the experiment, two Macaque monkeys were initially allowed to play with a joystick to get the feel for the basic capabilities of their new mechanical arm.  The arm featured shoulder joints, an elbow joint, and a two-fingered grasping claw.

Afterwards, a grid of electrodes the size of freckles were implanted just beneath the monkeys' skulls on their motor cortex.  The grid contained 100 electrodes and was placed on a section of the brain known to signal hand and arm movements.  Each electrode connected to a separate neuron, and the signals ran back out of the brain via wire to computers for processing.

The device collected the firings on the neurons and used it to generate a movement response which was sent to the arm.  The monkeys quickly learned from this biofeedback how to perform basic arm movements.  Within several days the monkey needed no assistance.  Sitting motionless they moved the arm like a normal limb, using it to delicate pick up small objects like grapes, marshmallows, and other chewy nuggets which were held in front of them.  Over two-thirds of the time the goodies found their way to the hungry little monkeys' mouths.

The monkeys learned to approach the morsel with an open "hand", to close the hand, and to slowly release as they bit into it.  They shocked researchers showcasing advanced movements, such as using one finger to pick up a sticky item by poking it, keeping the hand open.  They also would bring their arm by their mouth to lick clean, and would use it push morsels of food dangling from their mouth back in.  Researchers wrote that these were "displays of embodiment that would never be seen in a virtual environment".

Dr. Andrew Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh and senior author of the paper on the research states, "In the real world, things don’t work as expected.  The marshmallow sticks to your hand or the food slips, and you can’t program a computer to anticipate all of that.  But the monkeys’ brains adjusted. They were licking the marshmallow off the prosthetic gripper, pushing food into their mouth, as if it were their own hand."

The new paper, released in the online journal Nature, is coauthored by Meel Velliste, Sagi Perel, M. Chance Spalding and Andrew Whitford.  The paper demonstrates that human brain-controlled prosthetics while not affordable in cost or difficulty, are technically feasible, or within reach.

Says expert Dr. William Heetderks, director of the extramural science program at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, "This study really pulls together all the pieces from earlier work and provides a clear demonstration of what’s possible."

Another expert, Dr. John P. Donoghue, director of the Institute of Brain Science at Brown University commented that the paper is "important because it’s the most comprehensive study showing how an animal interacts with complex objects, using only brain activity."

One major problem that remains is that brain electrode grids currently fail within months for unknown reasons.  Furthermore, the system is cumbersome and needs calibration.  Also, so far a safe wireless interface has not been demonstrated, necessitating wires through the scalp.  However the researchers are striving ahead, looking for solution to each of these problems.

Dr. John F. Kalaska, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal in an accompanying article in the Nature journal says that once the bugs have been resolved, researchers may be able to find other areas of the brain to give the limbs even more delicate response.  Kalaska says such possible future systems, "would allow patients with severe motor deficits to interact and communicate with the world not only by the moment-to-moment control of the motion of robotic devices, but also in a more natural and intuitive manner that reflects their overall goals, needs and preferences."

Comments     Threshold

This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled had to be said.
By akugami on 5/29/2008 2:41:58 PM , Rating: 5
I for one welcome our cyborg monkey overlords.

RE: had to be said.
By Misty Dingos on 5/29/2008 2:52:33 PM , Rating: 5
Hey it is either the CMO (Cyborg Monkey Overlords) or the computer just starts using us for batteries.

So let's hear it for the CMO! And yes Master I want to work on a bananna plantation!

RE: had to be said.
By KristopherKubicki on 5/29/2008 3:10:44 PM , Rating: 5
I'm pretty sure machines will use us for spare computing power before they use is as batteries. Think Folding@Home, where Folding is human brainpower, and @Home is @Machine-run-megacorporation

RE: had to be said.
By shaw on 5/29/2008 3:14:57 PM , Rating: 2
Oh great, soon we'll have Cyber Ninja Curious George from Zanzibar Land.

RE: had to be said.
By amanojaku on 5/29/2008 4:11:26 PM , Rating: 4
Don't worry. All we have to do to break "Skynet" or "Monkeynet" is insert Jack Thompson's brain. If it exists.

RE: had to be said.
By DeltaZero on 5/29/2008 4:36:31 PM , Rating: 2
Amazon's Mechanical Turks apparently were just the first step.

RE: had to be said.
By SilthDraeth on 5/29/2008 6:03:43 PM , Rating: 2
This isn't the first time. Duke did this back in the 2003 time frame.

Sorry Jason you didn't research your article for accuracy.

RE: had to be said.
By SilthDraeth on 5/30/2008 2:05:27 AM , Rating: 2
Wow. Voted to a negative one by pointing out that this experiment has been done before by Duke.

I guess if one college makes a discovery and posts it in a peer reviewed journal it is meaningless. But if another college 5 years later makes the same discovery, and Daily Tech covers it then it is "The first breakthrough of it's kind"

RE: had to be said.
By paydirt on 5/30/08, Rating: 0
RE: had to be said.
By SilthDraeth on 5/30/2008 10:14:19 AM , Rating: 3
No I was not attempting to be a dick. No I do not expect them to know everything.

But using Google, a simple search of "monkey controls robot arm" brings up the other story instantly, and disproves the following quote: (Pay special attention to "first time ever".

I would expect one would do at least as much research as a someone in high school is required to do when writing a report on a subject. First and foremost to attempt to validate the accuracy of the information being reported.

"Now, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University have taken the next step and for the first time ever have showcased the use of one of these nerve interfaced limbs with a nonhuman primate."

RE: had to be said.
By bobdeer1965 on 5/30/08, Rating: -1
RE: had to be said.
By spluurfg on 5/30/2008 2:45:36 AM , Rating: 2
It's a reference to the film, 'The Matrix'... sorry to ruin the plot if you ever decide to see it, but in the film robots take over Earth and use millions of humans as power plants: food in = heat out = electricity.

I wonder if we could get these monkeys to get really good at those plush-toy-crane machines...

RE: had to be said.
By kenji4life on 5/30/2008 4:38:09 AM , Rating: 2
Before berating people for a simple typo, try to use your own brain. The "i" key is next to the "u" key on the keyboard. But whatever, for your benefit, he meant to say "use us as batteries".

RE: had to be said.
By jcherrybon on 5/30/2008 9:21:11 PM , Rating: 2
Hey Bobdeer.... you might want to check your own post before attacking others. Or should I say "Look at you post below". Yes, look at you post. Well said.

RE: had to be said.
By kenji4life on 5/31/2008 11:10:12 AM , Rating: 2
While we're nitpicking Bob, he didn't capitalize his first W, and his punctuation for a question is incorrect (generally we punctuate a question with a ? (called a question mark), not a .).

RE: had to be said.
By bobdeer1965 on 5/30/08, Rating: -1
RE: had to be said.
By kenji4life on 5/30/2008 4:40:41 AM , Rating: 5
Now you're just being an @sshole.

RE: had to be said.
By jcherrybon on 5/30/2008 9:30:24 PM , Rating: 1
Yes Bobdeer, you post sure sounded like a caveman typed it. Good luck with you future typing endeavors. b

RE: had to be said.
By FITCamaro on 5/29/2008 3:54:28 PM , Rating: 2
My evil army of robot pirate ninja monkeys is one step closer to completion.

RE: had to be said.
By Misty Dingos on 5/29/2008 4:19:29 PM , Rating: 2
Do you need a comic side kick? I can do that. Considering the other jobs at the offering.

1. Working in a plantation for the Cyborg Monkey Overlords.
2. Working for the computer as an ancillary computing module. Or.
3. Working for the computer as a battery.

So working for a megalomaniac human with a bunch of ningas seems like a step up.

RE: had to be said.
By FITCamaro on 5/29/2008 4:37:27 PM , Rating: 2
If you amuse me you might be spared. But damn it if you bring me a cupcake with a sprinkle on it, I will kill you.

RE: had to be said.
By V3ctorPT on 5/29/2008 4:30:20 PM , Rating: 4
Monkeycop... criminals, be afraid...

RE: had to be said.
By jahinoz on 5/30/2008 1:45:49 AM , Rating: 2

Sadly, aforementioned crime fighting robot monkeys exist in a show literally with said name.

RE: had to be said.
By FaceMaster on 5/29/08, Rating: -1
RE: had to be said.
By bodar on 5/29/2008 5:12:28 PM , Rating: 3
So is this sarcasm or did you eat too much of the "candy" that peeled off the windowsill in your bedroom as a kid?

RE: had to be said.
By FaceMaster on 6/6/08, Rating: 0
RE: had to be said.
By V3ctorPT on 5/29/2008 7:14:42 PM , Rating: 5
I'm just sad for the monkey... what if he has an itch in his crotch? :| (the horror)...

RE: had to be said.
By fonzdaman on 5/30/2008 12:49:13 AM , Rating: 2
This is rather useful news. Soon as the mechanical arms hit people's living rooms i want a programmed monkey to drop seedless grapes in my mouth while watching Criminal Minds or some other funkey show :D

RE: had to be said.
By Mojo the Monkey on 5/30/2008 1:43:27 AM , Rating: 5
I for one welcome our cyborg monkey overlords.

Ladies and gentlemen, uh, we've just lost the picture, but what we've seen speaks for itself. The lab has apparently been taken over - 'conquered,' if you will - by a master race of monkeys with robot arms. It's difficult to tell from this vantage point whether they will consume the captive Earthmen or merely enslave them. One thing is for certain: there is no stopping them; the monkeys will soon be here. And I, for one, welcome our new cyborg monkey overlords. I'd like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their tropical banana plantations.

RE: had to be said.
By Donkeyshins on 5/30/2008 3:51:35 PM , Rating: 2
No bananas for you, Mr. Brockman.

RE: had to be said.
By stephenfs on 5/30/2008 10:22:15 AM , Rating: 3
It sounds like every human who needs a prosthetic limb should also have a monkey on their back to help control it.

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