A grad student told me today that he was really excited to hear about recent research in which scientists implanted about 100 tiny electrodes in a monkey’s brain, and used info obtained from reading those signals to get the monkey to control a robot arm. I’ve looked it up on the internet – you type
monkey arm computer brain into Google and it comes right up – and I read through the recent article in The New York Times.
There were a lot of quotes from excited scientists saying how wonderful this research result is. The thing I couldn’t figure out – and they don’t really explain it in the article – is how they got the monkey’s informed consent, obviously something you’d need to do before sticking 100 electrodes in somebody’s brain and then making them have to learn to use a robotic arm if they want to feed themselves.
I’m trying to imagine that first meeting. Monkey walks in, is asked to sit down by a nice lab assistant. There’s probably a bowl of oranges on the table, so the monkey helps himself, looks around. Lots of fancy equipment, good furniture – real oak, not the cheap Ikea stuff some labs use – a row of bound volumes of Nature on the bookshelf. Clearly this is no fly by night lab. The monkey likes this; getting asked to be part of something important. Helps himself to another slice of orange.
A scientist enters the room, sits down, ignores the oranges, which is strange because they are really rather good. He explains to the monkey the basic idea, the set-up, what they hope to discover in this research about the workings of the brain.
The monkey is impressed. These guys clearly know their stuff. He also likes the fact that they are offering to compensate him for any days he’ll be away from the pack. Maybe he can get them to throw in a few dozen oranges. They hand him a pen, he signs.
The only issue I have with this scenario, as I play it over in my mind, is the language problem. I mean, how do they know the monkey really understands the details? English is not a language that monkeys generally speak, and I’m pretty sure (at least I’ve been told) that most neuroscientists do not have the skills or training to effectively communicate their ideas with an individual of another species. So how do the scientists know they have the monkey’s informed consent?
Then my mind flashes on the monkey’s point of view. One moment he was in a comfortable chair, having a serious chat with some earnest young scientists while polishing off a nice slice of orange, and the next thing he knows he’s strapped to a gurney.
The monkey’s mind races. He sees in a mirror that his head has been shaved. This will not go down well with the girlfriend. Even worse, a large circular piece has been carved out his skull, from which about a hundred wires are attached. Around now he’s thinking that this just can’t be good.
The monkey wracks his brain. How did he get here? He tries to reconstruct the sequence. Clearly there is some connection with the paper he signed. But he’d been given to understand that was some kind of loyalty oath. The humans are clearly a powerful species. They’ve got flying vehicles, wear artificial skins, and are rumored to have lethal nuclear weapons and deadly Jalepeño peppers. When a species like that invites you in to sign a loyalty oath, you don’t argue.
Sure they’d been jabbering on about something or other, but that was just human talk – nobody but another human can follow any of that. And now here he is, immobilized, strapped to a gurney with a big hole in his head, and about a hundred wires leading out of his skull to a big metal box. Holy Jesus!
The monkey tries to move his arm, and a robot arm starts to move instead. That’s when he gets it – they’ve got his brain controlling a robot. They’ve turned him into a frigging cyborg! This is most definitely not good. The next few days are not fun. His head hurts all the time, strange humans come in to prod and poke him unpleasantly, and the robot arm is a bitch to operate, although he’s getting the hang of it.
By the third day he’s using the arm to feed himself. Not bad for a duped conscript! He permits himself a virtual pat on the back. In any case, he’s getting good at moving the robot. Which is important, because he’s been practicing, and the very next time any human scientists come into range, he’s going use that hi-tech arm to throw his feces at them.