TCS Daily

Monkey See, Terrorist Do?

By Gyongyi Gaal - July 30, 2002 12:00 AM

If recent cutting edge research and experimentation is any indicator, our telekinetic future may be closer than we think. At least, some of our enemies seem to think so.

Back in the November 2000 issue of Nature magazine, a group of researchers from Duke University, MIT, and other prestigious schools reported some truly pathbreaking research. They had implanted microelectrodes in the brains of owl monkeys. After successfully recording the monkey's neuronal activities from the motor cortex while they moved their arms -- for example, as they were operating a joystick or reaching for pieces food -- the researchers used various mathematical algorithms to reconstruct the arm movement trajectories from recorded neuronal activities. Then they used the interpretations to predict the arm trajectory in advance and, finally, to get a robot arm to faithfully mimic the trajectory of the primate's hand.

By itself that's amazing. But what was truly incredible is that the researchers were able to activate the robot directly, in real time, with nothing more than the signals derived from the monkeys' brain activity. Monkey see; robot do. While the monkeys were oblivious to the fact, their brain activity alone instantaneously brought a robot to life in the Duke University lab!

To top it all, the researchers managed to replicate the movements of the robot in a flashy demonstration via an Internet connection. They used an identical robot placed far away from the first one, at MIT Touch Laboratory.

The scientific report generated tremendous excitement in the scientifically-attuned press partly because the project leader, Miguel Nicolelis, was already experienced in the technique of controlling journalists: he used well-targeted press releases. It did not come as a complete surprise, then, for the initiated that MIT Technology Review listed the promising work of Nicolelis on brain-machine interfaces as one of ten major Technical Innovations in January 2001.

The scientific community was also abuzz at that time with research results from Drs. Phil Kennedy and Roy Bakay. These scientists implanted a special gold electrode inside a glass cone in the motor cortex of a stroke patient. After doing so, they obtained stable neural signals from the patient and used the signals, along with special computer equipment, to train the paralyzed patient to move a computer cursor around on a custom-designed screen. In this way, the patient was able to choose icons for communicating with the world.

What's the upshot of all this fascinating research? Well, it depends on whom you ask.

Naturally the Duke-MIT researchers intended to put their results to good use in patient care some day in the future (in addition to gaining even more exposure, research funding, interviews and collecting prizes).

But in an interview, they also alluded to the many other potential applications of the research. Among these was the possibility of activating robots as far away as on the surface of Mars and combining telemetry with microchips. And they pointed out, proudly, that "this is not science-fiction any more." Interestingly, still other articles at the time the research was made public alluded to the almost immediate possibility of flying airplanes and controlling distant robots with the power of thought alone - a kind of high tech telekinesis.

Good Technology, Nefarious Uses

The idea that all these important steps in a nascent but vitally important technological field would recede into oblivion was dismaying to me. So I listed the URLs of some of the most interesting and important magazine articles on the Neuroprosthesis Research Organization website, which I supervise.

But after posting these articles, a curious - and, to me, disturbing - thing happened.

To our genuine surprise, soon after January 2001, we noticed a surge in the site's Web traffic. And a significant amount of the traffic originated in Saudi Arabia.

At the time, my colleagues and I dismissed this surge as a statistical oddity. After all, there were many visitors to our site from other countries overseas such as Japan. But somehow that was easier to explain since Japan is one of the major players in the field of robotics, and the Japanese have made substantial progress in neuroscience. But Saudi Arabia?

Now it is, of course, impossible to read the minds of faraway visitors. But after that horrible September day nine months after we first posted these articles, it takes no exceptional talent in weaving conspiracy theories to reinterpret some of these outlier hits coming from the direction of the Middle East. (The visits from Saudi Arabia and some other even-harder-to-interpret-in-scientific-terms countries - such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan - have continued, albeit at a diminished pace.)

While not all of my colleagues agreed with this decision, it seemed wise to me to notify the appropriate authorities. After all, some earlier articles and interviews we linked to discussed the possibilities of planes being controlled, remotely, by simple human thoughts. Who can know for sure exactly what these visitors had in mind as they read the articles?

Scientific Hurdles

Now we have learned from a lengthy Washington Post article ("Cyber-Attacks by Al Qaeda Feared") that other, more utilitarian Web sites also are getting clusters of visits from web surfers in such countries. These visits are curious enough to raise questions of possible hostile future plans related to cyber-attacks on computer networks controlling power plants, water dams and telecommunications systems.

Abstracting just a little bit, such visits suggest there are people in these countries interested in orchestrating the activities of humans, animals, or robots at a considerable distance from where those activities are ultimately executed. Furthermore, these plans could be communicated and executed directly and in real time via the Internet: global telekinesis.

We can take some comfort in knowing that some of these actions possibly envisioned by Islamic terrorists would be difficult to do. They would require expensive, invasive surgery performed on a willing (or unwilling) subject. Such ambitious plans requiring this tremendous sacrifice would have sounded unbelievably crazy last year at this time. But if someone is willing to offer himself or herself -- or his or her daughters and sons -- to become suicidal martyrs, then implanting a couple of electrodes in animals or even humans in relatively safe surgeries does not seem to be as far-fetched as it once did. As the Duke researcher pointed out in a different context -- "this is not science-fiction any more."

They wouldn't have to have surgery here. The world is a hodge-podge of bioethical rules that allows people to shop around for what they want. For example, if you cannot have a visual prosthesis implant done in the United States, you may be able to have it done in Portugal today. If the Food and Drug Administration doesn't approve fetal cell implants for Parkinson's patients in the United States, well, the patients, and even the neurosurgeons, may just travel to China. Who is in a position to object if the patients come back with a couple of cells or some extra hardware in their brains, especially if the surgeries worked out fine?

And if telekinetic technology ends up in the wrong hands, it's not hard to imagine what might happen. Normal people get neurosurgical or neurochemical implants that, switched on "telekinetically" by way of the Internet or even a hum-drum cell phone, make them tireless super soldiers, ready to carry out missions of mass destruction.

Farfetched? Maybe. But not very farfetched any more. And that means this nation, working with others, needs -- with reasonable privacy protections, of course - to find better methods for securing the Internet's coding and data transmission and develop more effective biometric identification techniques to deal with potential threats. With the speed at which technology advances nowadays, there is no time to monkey around. The deadline for finding better methods of protection should be three days ago.



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