Mind over matter, indeed.
Photo of a Falcon fighter jet via Wikimedia Commons
Jan Scheuermann’s starting goal was simple at first: the woman, suffering from a neurodegenerative disease that left her arms and legs paralyzed, wanted to be able to feed herself chocolate.
In 2012, scientists from Darpa, the U.S. military’s futuristic science program, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories approached Scheuermann about trying to connect her brain into a robotic arm, aiming to help her achieve her goal, according to Wired. However, in 2014 the scientists connected her mind to a flight simulator of an F-35 Joint Strike, the military’s next-generation attack jet. Surprisingly, the neural connections that are used to control a flight simulator are also used to operate a robotic arm.
While it may appear that Scheuermann is the test pilot for military mind-controlled drones—especially considering that Darpa announced the flight simulation at a security conference called “Future of War”—Wired reports that according to Darpa officials, this research is part of the Revolutionizing Prosthetics research track. The program aims to create better robotic arms for injured veterans.
“We are thinking about exactly how to restore function after injury, how the brain can be used to actuate devices,” Justin Sanchez, the head of Darpa’s prosthetics research, told Wired.
Sanchez believes projects like this are helping discover the potential of artificial neural circuitry. The idea behind it is that rather than having specific neurons control a specific device—such as a cochlear implant or a prosthetic limb—you can utilize the neurons to interact directly with a computer and as a result, the computer can do a wide variety of tasks, from unwrapping a candy to or making a plane perform a barrel roll.
As for the science behind it, Wired reports that a sensor, embedded in her brain, records Sheuermann’s neural activity and is made up of 96 microelectrodes that are responsible for different cells.
“When you put them on the motor cortex, the pips [microelectrodes] get very close to the cell body and can record whenever one of those cells fire,” Sanchez told Wired. All his team had to do was reprogram the electrodes’ output so that they controlled the motions of a fighter jet simulator rather than a robotic arm.
There are, of course, limits to this development. Scientists, Sanchez and his team included, are still unsure of how neurons control movement, especially because the connections rewire themselves as they get better at tasks. So the network of neurons, that could control things other than the body, are constantly changing, and this of course makes it exceptionally challenging for scientists to figure out which group of cells to assign to the electrode sensor.
Despite this hurdle, Sanchez and his team have taken a monumental step forward in reprogramming Scheuermann’s neuronal wiring so she could fly a fighter jet simulator. “Fundamentally it’s demonstrations like this that change the way that we think about the way brain does work in the world,” Sanchez told Wired.
Watch the video of Scheuermann flying the jet below: