Watch These Guys Make a Shark Swim With Their Minds
In this week’s episode of Cyborg Nation, five guys make a shark swim through the air—with their minds. Every time you raise an eyebrow or think a thought, electrical signals zoom through your brain. Electrodes on your head can pick those signals up and transmit them to a computer. And if the computer is paired with a shark, you can totally make that thing shake its tail fin.
OpenBCI, a company based in Brooklyn, is dedicated to making these so-called brain computer interfaces (BCIs) available to anyone who wants to take a crack at controlling machines with their minds. The set-up is pretty simple: You connect electrodes to a small, battery-powered circuit board, which records your body’s electrical signals and sends them to the program running on the computer.
At their first hackathon, OpenBCI plays with a few fun interfaces. In one, you can make a robotic arm move by flexing your own arm. Another shows three people working together to make three robot spiders skulk along a table. And in a third, five guys independently think of five separate commands—dive, swim, climb, left, right—to control an inflatable shark moving through the air.
On their website, OpenBCI has made the hardware design and interface software open source, and with a bit of handiness and access to a 3-D printer, you could be controlling—and tinkering with—robot arms from the comfort of your own home.
“Innovation happens faster when software and hardware are open source, when people can change and modify it to their desire,” says Joel Murphy, co-founder of OpenBCI. The hope is that anyone can get in on the BCI revolution. All they need is a board, a few electrodes, and the will to make a shark fly.
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, every moment matters. First responders often have mere minutes to find survivors buried under collapsed buildings or trapped in earthquake rubble. So Alper Bozkurt, a bioelectrical engineer at North Carolina State University, is recruiting emergency personnel from a speedy but unlikely community: cockroaches.
To build his “cyber cockroaches,” Bozkurt straps tiny backpacks containing microchips onto the insects. As he explains in this episode of Cyborg Nation, after an earthquake, the scientists behind the CyberRoach project can use remote controls to move the bugs in different directions, exploring the nooks and crannies underneath rubble to locate survivors and broadcast their coordinates back to a human rescue team.
CyberRoach is just the start of training insects to bring us information from the spaces humans cannot go; DARPA has started funding research for using beetles as surveillance drones. Interested in training your own roach to spy on your neighbor’s whereabouts? For your next DIY project, buy a CyberRoach kit—no insect included. (For a volunteer subject, try looking under your fridge. On second thought, don’t.)
When Hugh Herr was seventeen, he got trapped in a blizzard while ice-climbing the formidable Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington. He lost both his legs to frostbite and gangrene. But only 12 months later, Herr was climbing at the same level as before the accident—and with homemade prosthetics, his skills continued to improve. “I started to climb walls that no one had ever climbed before,” explains Herr. “Some of my colleagues actually threatened to cut their own legs off to achieve the same ‘unfair advantage as me.’”
In the first episode of Cyborg Nation, Herr—who is also head of the Biomechatronics research group at MIT Media Lab—explains the power of biomimetic design for prosthetics. His “bionic limb” is designed to mirror how a calf muscle actually functions; sensors facilitate neural reflexes, so a user can make a mechanical body part move with a thought, as in full-bodied movement. As Herr imagines it, through bionic appendages, machines increasingly will become a part of us, both rehabilitating and enhancing our natural abilities.