Where's My Flying Car?Mind Over MatterWhere's My Flying Car? - RSS 2.0
Now I'm strolling through a different garden, this time situated on a white terrace. A plump, white-haired woman dressed like Bilbo Baggins' great-aunt welcomes me to the world of the Wild Divine. In a husky smoker's voice, she informs me that "this is a place of magic." I wonder how much she was paid to do this. Whatever it was, it wasn't enough.
She points me toward an eight-point pinwheel, ordering me to blow on the object and make it turn. For a moment, I stare blankly at the screen, still processing my task, before obliging her with a tentative huff. The pinwheel nudges slightly. Intrigued, I blow harder, as if I were trying to spin a real-life pinwheel. In response, the digital one spins rapidly.
Okay, for all the gardens and zebras and women in Ren Faire garb, that was kind of cool.
We Can Rebuild You ...
Biofeedback games like The Journey to the Wild Divine are not the only way scientists have been experimenting with thought-controlled machinery. Recently, artificial limbs like the Bionic Arm have entered the clinical testing phase.
The Bionic Arm is a six-motor cybernetic prosthesis controlled entirely by its owner's thoughts. Developed by Dr. Todd Kuiken, director of the Neural Engineering Center for Bionic Medicine at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the prosthesis is the result of over 20 years of research efforts. "My goal with amputees has always been to develop more natural and graceful prostheses," says Kuiken. "Prosthetic technology is primitive, and I knew we could do better."
Through a surgical process known as "targeted muscle reinnervation," nerves that once connected to the amputated arm are rerouted, linking instead to healthy muscle fibers in the chest and shoulder. The motorized prosthesis is then attached the site of amputation. The rerouted nerves can now direct signals to the robotic limb using surface electrodes; thought-generated impulses are interpreted and travel down the arm, guiding its movement. The result: When the patient thinks about moving his arm, he does.
This is quite a step up from the body-controlled hands, hooks and other prostheses currently available on the market. Essentially just scrap metal, wood and plastic co-opted by the patient to approximate the missing limb, these limbs are awkward and frustrating to manage. "They can be clumsy, tiring and hard to learn how to use, especially for those with higher amputations," Kuiken explains. "The thought-controlled arm allows its user to move in a more natural way - simply by thinking."
Since the Bionic Arm's invention in 2002, seven patients have undergone targeted muscled reinnervation, says Kuiken, and the surgery has been successful in all but one case. Jesse Sullivan, a Tennessee man who became the first to be outfitted with the Bionic Arm, has received most of the media attention. Once a power line worker, Sullivan lost both his arms in 2001 due to severe electrical burns. Four years later, he volunteered to test the new technology, and his progress has been astonishing. The greatest surprise is that Sullivan has actually recaptured some sensory ability with his robotic limb. He can now sense heat and vibration with it, and if you press on his chest muscles, he feels as if you'd touched his mechanical pinky.
Kuiken hopes to one day use the Bionic Arm for veterans returning from combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of 2006, more than 400 amputees have been treated in Army hospitals; the Bionic Arm, Kuiken hopes, has the potential to vastly improve their lives. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency agrees; along with money from the National Institute of Health, Kuiken's research is funded by a multi-lab grant from DARPA worth almost $50 million.
All this makes a thought-controlled videogame seem like a trivial enterprise; if we can construct artificial body parts that our minds can control, we can certainly design other electronics with which to interface mentally. Like Sullivan, we can literally become one with our machines; by manipulating them at a primal level just at the boundary of consciousness, we could bend them entirely to our will.
Mind Over Videogame
I continue experimenting with The Journey to the Wild Divine, juggling energy balls and waving mystic wands. Eventually, however, I'm taken to a courtyard, where a tall black man, also dressed in Shakespeare's hand-me-downs, stares contently at a purple ball floating by his outstretched hands.