Scientists in China claim to have created a brain-computer interface that allows a monkey to control a robotic arm using its mind. Just like other incarnations of this type of technology, the researchers argue it could someday help people who have lost the use of their limbs.
The research, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, was revealed in an announcement on May 5 by Nankai University in Tianjin.
The technology turns electroencephalogram (EEG) signals into control instructions for the robotic arm, which the monkey can use to guide food into its mouth. The technology works using a specialized receptor that's placed in a small opening through the jugular vein leading straight into the motor cortex of the brain via the sagittal sinus in the skull.
Other companies have been recently working on similar brain-computer interfaces much like this research. The most famous – although not necessarily the most technically impressive – attempts have come from Elon Musk’s Neuralink that demonstrated how a monkey can play the video game Pong with its mind.
This new approach from China is said to be “minimally invasive” and comparable to a heart stent procedure. They argue that it’s notably less disruptive than the operations carried out on primates by Neuralink, which has come under fire for its ethical and safety standards.
The researchers concede that this is just one small step in a field with far-reaching potential and it will still be at least five years until they feel confident enough to move forward to human tests.
“It can be said that we still have a long way to go,” Dr Ma Yongjie from the Department of Neurosurgery of Xuanwu Hospital who worked on the project told Beijing Daily.
“The next step is to optimize the electrode design, verify its safety and reliability for long-term implantation in animals, as well as further analyze, process, and transform the collected signals to be completed. It may take 5 years or even longer for the interventional brain-computer interface to go clinically,” explained Yongjie.
Musk has been even more optimistic with his ambitions for Neuralink’s brain-computer interface, saying in December 2022 that they could possibly carry out human trials this year. Musk, however, is notorious for missing deadlines.