By tapping into a turtle’s natural fight or flight response, researchers in Korea have managed to direct a living turtle via human thought. The work could help in the development of future search and rescue technology.
The set up for the experiment, published in the Journal of Bionic Engineering, is basically a combination of a brain-to-computer interface, in which readings of brain waves can be used to control robotics, and a subsequent computer-to-brain interface, which as you’ve probably already guessed involves using robotics to control brains.
The turtle in question is set up with a camera mounted on its head, providing a live feed to a human. The human then thinks about whether or not they want to move left, right, or stay idle, based on what they are seeing through the live feed. This thought is read by a computer and transmitted via Wi-Fi to a receiver mounted on the turtle's shell.
Credit: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)
The receiver then controls what is in effect a semi-circular blind that's attached to the shell, which swings from left to right. If, for example, the human controller thinks about moving right, the blind will swing to the turtle’s left and the animal will instinctively move to the right to try and avoid the perceived obstacle.
The researchers were then able to get the turtles to navigate a simple obstacle course. The first was conducted indoors, while two others were then completed outside, with the human operator sitting an impressive five kilometers (3 miles) away from the turtle.
A turtle might not be the obvious choice for someone who can pick any creature from the animal kingdom to control by thought, but there are a few reasons why it was chosen. The main reason is that turtles display strongly instinctual escape behavior, in which they will predictably try to avoid objects in their way and move towards light that they perceive as open space.
They were also selected because they have a relatively high cognitive ability, as well as being able to distinguish between different wavelengths of light. This, apparently, makes them perfect subjects for the super villain-esque mind-control experiments.
Researchers have already established how to control animals remotely via hair-thin electrodes implanted into their brains. This has mainly focused on insects such as cockroaches, although there are reports that some have managed to control pigeon flight in this way. This, however, is fairly invasive, and so the researchers of the latest study were aiming for a far more ethical approach.
They hope that this could eventually help improve augmented reality, as well as have applications for search and rescue, military surveillance, and reconnaissance.