Neural Control

The interface that taps into your body and feels like no interface at all.

Picture a world where cars don’t have steering wheels and airplanes are guided by the neural impulses describing the movement of a hand or the flick of a wrist. Imagine an entire orchestra composed of musicians playing invisible instruments, the sound translated from signals issuing through each player’s motor neurons. A whole orchestra of instruments playing, with not a single musician moving their hands. Such a future is not as unimaginable as you might think.

A team of doctors and military researchers have developed a way to tap directly into neural impulses sent from the brain to the hands. Should this technology reach the mainstream, we won’t need keyboards, computer mice, or touch screens. We won’t, as in Glen Lehman’s case, need biological hands at all.

In a stiff gesture, former Army Staff Sgt. Glen Lehman reaches his right hand towards a paper coffee cup, fumbling for a moment to properly close his fingers around the cup’s cardboard sleeve. Then, with a whir, he brings it toward his lips, lifting his right shoulder in a half-shrug to close the last inch. The gesture sounds simple enough but it illustrates the cutting edge of a revolutionary technology tapping into the human nervous system.

The hand holding Lehman’s cup is prosthetic, developed by researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in collaboration with doctors at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Lehman lost his right arm below the elbow in a grenade attack in 2008 while serving in Iraq, and doctors were able to surgically reposition the nerves in his arm so that sensors on his skin can intercept the neural signals that would have gone to his hand. These sensors connect to a small computer—about the size of an iPhone—which reads the electrical impulses from his brain and translates them into the movements of the bionic arm.

The technology is far from perfect but it opens up a host of possibilities; any equipment that relies on hand manipulation has the potential to be dramatically reimagined.

Picture writers working without moving their fingers, able to compose text simply by thinking of the motions. Or a painter whose subtle brush strokes are captured impulse-by-impulse and replayed by a brush-wielding device that precisely creates the artwork they imagine.

Computers could even read the neural signals of a surgeon’s complex hand movements, recreating them in an operating room half a world away while sensors on the other end transmit sensations of pressure and texture back to the nerves of the doctor. The feedback loop of touch and movement could function across immense distances—as though surgeon and patient were in the same room.

Consider the possibility of using this imperceptible interface to amplify human strength. Superhero-like construction crews of the future could excavate tons of earth or lift heavy steel beams with the simple flip of a wrist or lifting of a palm. Neural control is possible for nearly anything mechanically operated, from cranes to diggers to cars and planes. The only action needed is thought—electrical impulse picked up by body sensors—and computers will perform the rest.

Just this fall, the same research team unveiled the first thought-controlled bionic leg, a version of which could be publicly available in as little as three years. With more than half a billion dollars going to the construction of a new medical research facility for the doctors working with this technology, there’s little doubt that this is only the beginning of a new technological frontier.

Got you hooked? Here’s more:


Targeted Muscle Re-innervation at work Former Staff Sgt. Glen Lehman picks up a paper cup with his bionic arm


A True Bionic Limb Remains Far Out of Reach Wired magazine on why we’re still waiting for a technological breakthrough


The Six Million Dollar Man A television show that continues to inspire dreams of man-machine hybrids

Image Soma neuron — Flying Lotus Girls #1 provided by greenmelinda under Creative Commons license. Images have been cropped and resized.

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