When Minds Change With Machines, Who Controls?


Last time I saw my friend James at a townie bar near our old high school. He had been working as a roofer for several years, no longer a thin young man with hippie hair. I had just returned from a job with the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan. We remembered the summer after our new year, when we were inseparable – walking along the jungle, arguing over Batman’s goodness against the Crow, and watching every movie in my dad’s VHS team. I did not know what I wanted to do next. Her future, however, was decided: She joined them soon Navy and was to start the boot camp the following week. He wanted to serve in Afghanistan.

James Raffetto was trained for the next three years as a special surgeon. He married and, soon after, was sent to southern Afghanistan. About four months after the start of his first trip, after healing a sick daughter of a local woman, he stepped on a mysterious bomb, a masterpiece made of balsa, invisible to explosives. He remembers finding his face on the ground, unable to control himself, shouting “No!”

His friends asked him what to do. James told them to wrap his legs around him, inject morphine, and tell his wife, Emily, how much he loved her. She woke up a week later at a hospital in Maryland, missing both legs, her left arm, and three toes on her right hand.

At that time I was on the other side of the country, working for a PhD neuroscience. We sent messages several times. He described how difficult it was for him to accept help after years of hard work.

James’ injury led me to a symposium about an upcoming segment of form of brain-computers– tools that are designed to be able to read human actions and use them to operate a robotic machine, voice synthesizer, or computer keyboard. At one point, a member of a neuroscience laboratory at Brown University demonstrated video including a paralyzed, anonymous patient Cathy Hutchinson. The researchers designed a BrainGate machine, which has a small electrode inserted into the motor cortex, a plug at the top of the head, a shoe box amplifier, and a computer program that can detect a patient’s nerves. symptoms.

In the video, Hutchinson attempts to use the robot’s arm to grab a bottle of coffee and grass in it. After sitting for a few minutes, his face as hard as a fist, he grabbed a bottle. Slowly, he brings it to his mouth and drinks the grass. His face softens, and he smiles broadly. His eyes light up what he did. The researchers are clapping their hands.

I wanted to clap with them. Neuroscience is a component that is hungry for concrete treatment. Few neurotransmitters work better than placebo, and when they do, researchers do not understand why. Even Tylenol is a secret. New methods and techniques can have dramatic results without clear methods; protocols are made by trial and error. As a result, the promise to improve the lives of people with motor problems and disabilities was intoxicating. I thought James was playing video games, planning around her house, unlimited in her career choices, carrying her future children with both hands.



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