March 2, 2013

Rats!

A Duke University Medical Center researcher, neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis, has linked two rat brains together and gotten them to communicate instructions to each other, both in the same lab and between two continents. Some see this as getting us a step closer to creating a working brain net, where interconnected brains work together to solve problems.  (Maybe we could set one up between Capitol Hill and the White House.)

Others see more ominous potential. The research is funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as part of a larger program of research on brain-machine interfaces. This leads some to see the specter of animal armies being led by animal generals doing our dirty work for us. You've already seem in this space how the research on creating robotic soldiers is progressing. Think what rats trained as spies could do or a platoon of warrior monkeys swarming through hostile terrain.

The way it works is one rat is trained to do choose between Door Number One and Door Number Two. If the rat makes the right choice, it gets a reward. Another rat's brain is wired to the first rat's brain. When the first rate, the encoder, makes the right choice, it sends an electrical burst to the other rat, which somehow decodes the signal and makes the right choice as well. The video below shows this in action.

The first thing that popped into my mind was not warfare but space exploration. First, think about a human-animal interface, where our human thoughts are translated by a neural link into actions by another species. Is that really so far-fetched or far off in the future, given the pace of research? Now, think about a small army of rats scurrying over the surface of a planet or an asteroid, taking their directions from human animal-drone pilots back on earth, via a link in the mother-ship.

I know, it's crazy, but it would make a heckuva story. Consider that the first space travel occurred not in a space ship but in the mind of a writer thinking about what it would be like to travel in space. Art allows us to experience places and spaces we can't experience directly. It gives us a chance to look before we leap, to consider the possibilities, both good and ill.

I have this theory that if we can imagine it, then it is possible. A corollary would be that we can't imagine anything that isn't possible, no matter how impossible it might seem at the moment. I guess this is just a round-about way of restating the old Chinese proverb: be careful what you wish for; it may come true.

I don't wish for mind-melding rats or brain nets, but others do. Before you know it, they will have imagined a whole new world into existence. Then what?


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