The future predicted in Avatar, in which alien bodies were controlled by human brains, has moved within our reach. A team of Korean scientists reported in a recent study that they have figured out how to control cyborg turtles with their minds. Sure, the commands they can give them are more of the “Don’t walk on the grass” variety and less “Take over the world, cyborg turtles,” but they’re still strange proof that science is catching up to science fiction at a rapid pace.
In the Journal of Bionic Engineering, the team from the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology explains that they chose turtles as their target animal because the large-shelled creatures move away from obstacles in a predictable manner and tend to move toward white light, which was key to designing their system.
The scientists outfitted the turtles’ upper shells with a “cyborg system” consisting of a camera, wifi transceiver, computer control module, and battery. (Each scientist thus became a literal Ghost In The Shell!) They also partially covered the turtles with a “simulation device” — a black, semi-cylindrical covering with a small opening in the front that the turtles that could see through. This opening was meant to serve as the source of white light that turtles would walk toward. The whole system was then connected to a human brain-computer interface (BCI) that allowed people to control the position of the simulation device opening with their minds.
A human in a separate room wore the BCI system, which was connected to the turtle’s simulation device via electroencephalography signals — a measure of the electrical activity in the human’s brain. Through the video camera mounted on the turtle’s back, the human could “see” what the turtle could see. Then came the mind-control part, in which the human testers would think “left,” “right,” or “idle.” Thinking about a direction would trigger a specific electrical pattern in the brain, which would in turn send a signal to the turtle’s stimulation device through wifi. Moving the opening of the simulation device would then obstruct the turtle’s view, causing it to shift in the direction the human testers chose with their brains.
This experiment proved that scientists could inject “human intelligence into a remotely located, biological body.” In a press release, the scientists behind this research said that they hope to develop this technology to improve augmented and virtual reality technologies. Brain-computer interfaces, like the one used in this experiment, are not only just a cool concept but also thought to be a potential therapy for paralyzed people looking to have more control over their own bodies.
The team behind this turtle research also thinks they can possibly leverage this technology to create better military reconnaissance techniques, they note in the paper. While they probably aren’t talking about cyborg turtle soldiers, keep in mind they aren’t not talking about cyborg turtle soldiers, as well.