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Brainets: Networking our Furry Friends

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The concept of the hive mind, or collective intelligence, has always been an interesting one. The fact that humans, through communication and collaboration, can achieve collective knowledge and execute collective tasks beyond the scope of an individual’s mind or abilities may be one of our great evolutionary advantages.

Well, what if we can harness the power of several animal minds, working in parallel, to complete computational tasks? That’s exactly what researchers at Duke University have been working on. Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis at Duke’s Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, and his team are working to use brain-machine interface technologies to connect animal brains into “brainets,” or networked neurological systems that compute and/or solve problems.

Here is a video of some of their earlier work with rats, with a brief narration at the end by Nicolelis:

In this video, an encoder rat and a decoder rat collaborate, adjusting their behavior to optimize performance over time.

Research published by Nicolelis this week, as described here, involved connecting the brains of three monkeys to a computer that controlled a graphic arm represented on a screen. By working together, the three monkeys were able to move the robotic arm in specific ways (for which they were rewarded).

Here’s the video, such as it is:

As brain-machine interface technology grows, the potential to harness animal brains for computing power seems utterly fascinating, but as I’ve noted before, our ethical work often lags woefully behind our scientific and technical work (especially as we exploit other creatures). What deep insights into the ways intelligence works we could uncover here, and I hope we do, but the moral dilemmas seem like something right out of an old episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Certainly there was an episode where a misunderstood scientist perfects a system to link and control multiple brains?

What could go wrong, right?

Author: Eric Kingsbury

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