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March 12, 2013

How people move things with their minds

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TEMPE, Ariz. —

So far the focus has been on medical applications — restoring standard-issue human functions to people with disabilities. But it's not hard to imagine the same technologies someday augmenting capacities. If you can make robotic legs walk with your mind, there's no reason you can't also make them run faster than any sprinter. If you can control a robotic arm, you can control a robotic crane. If you can play a computer game with your mind, you can, theoretically at least, fly a drone with your mind.

It's tempting and a bit frightening to imagine that all of this is right around the corner, given how far the field has already come in a short time. Indeed, Nicolelis — the media-savvy scientist behind the "rat telepathy" experiment — is aiming to build a robotic bodysuit that would allow a paralyzed teen to take the first kick of the 2014 World Cup. Yet the same factor that has made the explosion of progress in neuroprosthetics possible could also make future advances harder to come by: the almost unfathomable complexity of the human brain.

From I, Robot to Skynet, we've tended to assume that the machines of the future would be guided by artificial intelligence — that our robots would have minds of their own. Over the decades, researchers have made enormous leaps in artificial intelligence (AI), and we may be entering an age of "smart objects" that can learn, adapt to, and even shape our habits and preferences. We have planes that fly themselves, and we'll soon have cars that do the same. Google has some of the world's top AI minds working on making our smartphones even smarter, to the point that they can anticipate our needs. But "smart" is not the same as "sentient." We can train devices to learn specific behaviors, and even out-think humans in certain constrained settings, like a game of Jeopardy. But we're still nowhere close to building a machine that can pass the Turing test, the benchmark for human-like intelligence. Some experts doubt we ever will.

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