Rack My Brain

Your car requires a driver in the front seat to control it. Your dishwasher needs someone to load it and turn it on. But some new robotic devices apparently only require a bit of thought.

Researchers have made some amazing breakthroughs which allow living creatures to control robots simply by thinking about what they want them to do. For example, a robot arm plugged into a Petri dish of rat brain cells can draw things on paper. A monkey, plugged into a video game console, can play without touching a control pad. A fish brain hooked up to a swimming robot can guide the robot to the surface light.

This means that man can now truly control machines. Here's a transcript of the first human who plugged into one of these systems:

RESEARCHER: Okay, your brain implant is now in and we've hooked it up to the robot here. Think about the movement you want it to make, and it will do it.

SUBJECT: Oh cool! I think left and it goes left. Wow!

RESEARCHER: Now, we've designed a series of tests to check out the-

SUBJECT: So I've got complete control of this machine, right?

RESEARCHER: Yes, and as I was say-

SUBJECT: Okay, machine, go left. Whoops! I'm going to crash my operating system, so you can't do that. Ha ha! Now go right. Whoops! That's an illegal operation! Bad machine! Bad! Hahahaha! Now try and print something. Nyah, nyah! You can't! Paper jam! Bwahahahahaha! Now go up. Now I'm going to freeze you for no apparent reason! Hee hee hee! Now I'm going to walk you over the edge of the table-

RESEARCHER: Security! Security to lab five!
Okay, seriously, why is this technology interesting? Well for one thing, it means that paraplegics could chose to be wired up to robotic devices, and they could do more things for themselves, just through mental control. For the rest of us, imagine how this technology will save us from daily drudgery:
Lawn mowing: Plug into the mower controller, park your patoot under a tree and sip lemonade while you mind-control your machine. Admittedly, this wouldn't be as fun as my preferred method for mowing the lawn, which is to park myself under a tree and mind-control my husband into doing it.

Cleaning eavestrough: While you stand safely at the bottom, you think a robot up to the roof so it can clean the muck out of the gutters.

Laundry: I'm very good at remembering to switch the wash into the dryer. Usually at 3 a.m. Two days later. With a laundry robot, I could stay snuggled up in bed and let it deal with the accumulated mildew.

Now I know what all you cynics and pessimists are thinking. This is just another way for humans to become fatter and lazier than ever. To be sure, thought controlled robots probably means an increase in couch potatoes. On the other hand, we'd finally get around to regularly exercising something that we've neglected for years: our brains.

Indeed, multi-tasking in the future could mean controlling several robots at once — perhaps to clean your house, or even in sporting competitions. Imagine the challenge of controlling the movements of an entire robot hockey team. Think about being able to throw a body check without actually breaking every bone in your body.

And you know that that means?

Today's video games are actually good for you. Improving eye coordination. Developing faster thought reflexes. Preparing you for tomorrow.

Excuse me while I go practice for the future. It's for my own good, honest.

To read more of Chandra's work, visit www.ChandraKClarke.com.

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