Just For the Tech Of It: Monkey thought control, the ravages of microgravity

In a study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists demonstrated a new technique that allows monkeys to control electric wheelchairs with their thoughts alone. The researchers outfitted two rhesus monkeys with wireless brain implants that read electrical activity from the region of the brain responsible for voluntary motion. After that, the animals were trained to navigate their wheelchairs towards a reward — which in this case was a bowl of grapes in the middle of a room.

As the monkeys moved toward the bowl, the researchers recorded the monkeys’ brain activity, and afterward, they programmed a computer to translate those incoming brain signals into digital commands that controlled the movements of the wheelchair. Once this was all in place, all that the monkeys needed to do was imagine the trajectory they wanted to travel along in order to move toward the bowl. No joysticks, no pedals, no nothing — just thoughts. Scientists are hoping that in a few years, a more refined version of this technology will be available to people with mobility disorders, allowing them to control electric wheelchairs, bionic limbs, and even whole body exoskeletons with just their minds.

Next up, astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth this week after a 340-day stint aboard the International Space Station. Truth be told you probably already knew about this because it made national news, but what you probably didn’t hear about is all the amazing stuff we’ve learned during this year-long experiment.

Basically, we’ve come to realize that the human body is not well suited for life in microgravity. Our bodies have evolved over millions of years to deal with the effects of gravity, and as a result, when you take that gravity away, weird things start to happen. For starters, your bones lose density because when your skeleton doesn’t have to support the weight of your body in space, your bones don’t need to reinforce themselves, Your eyesight also deteriorates a bit, because without gravity, the extra fluid in your head puts pressure on your optic nerve. And on top of that, you also experience muscle atrophy because they don’t need to work as much to hold up your frame. So in order to keep their muscles from withering away, astronauts have to work out every day — which is actually pretty difficult without gravity.

And finally, news broke last week that NASA has officially resurrected its experimental aircraft project, and this week, the agency is already announced the first project — a new kind of passenger jet that can fly at supersonic speeds, without making a loud sonic boom. The idea is that the design of the plane would minimize the the size of the pressure waves that propogate as the plane approaches the speed of sound, so that when the aircraft breaks the sound barrier, the sonic boom is more like a soft thud.

The science and engineering that this requires is incredible, and NASA has already awarded $20 million dollars to Lockheed Martin to start working on the design. But it really makes us wonder: Aren’t there better things NASA could be working on? We can think of a million things we’d rather have on a plane.

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