When a mind melts with a machine, who has control?
Last time I saw my friend James at the town bar near our old high school. He had worked in roofs for a few years, no longer a thin railroad teenager with hippie lank hair. I had just recovered from time with the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan. We were reminded of the summer after our new year, when we were inseparable - going on in the harbor sloping through the woods, debating the merits of Batman versus the Crow, watching every movie in my dad's bootlegged VHS collection. I did not know what to do next. On the other hand, a decision was made about his future: He had recently joined the Navy and was starting a shoe camp the following week. He wanted to serve in Afghanistan.
James Raffetto trained for the next three years as a specialty active medicine. He married and was soon deported to southern Afghanistan. About four months after his first visit, just after treating a sick girl to a local woman, he proceeded to an unprepared explosive device - an ingenious lump inspired by a balsa wood pressure plate, invisible to bomb detectors. . He remembers finding himself face down, unable to correct himself, screaming "No!"
His companions asked him what he would do. James instructed them to put football on his limbs, inject morphine on him, and tell his wife, Emily, how much he loved her. He woke up a week later in a Maryland hospital, missing both legs, his left arm, and three fingers on his right hand.
Before that, I was on the other side of the country, working towards a PhD in neuroscience. We sent a message several times. He described how difficult it was to get help after years of strong capacity.
James' injury led me to attend a conference on the emerging field of computer-brain interface - devices designed to read and use a person's neural activity to make a robotic prosthetic, a speech synthesizer , or drive a computer cursor. At one point, a member of an ornithology laboratory at Brown University showed a video featuring a paralyzed, nonverbal patient named Cathy Hutchinson. The researchers had installed a system called BrainGate, which consists of a tiny electric field inserted into the motor cortex, a plug located directly above its head. , a shoebox size signal amplifier, and computer-run software that can decode the patient's neural. signals.
In the video, Hutchinson tries to use a robotic arm to lift a bottle of coffee with straw in it. After a few minutes of intense stroking, her face hard as a fist, she grips the bottle. To stop, she takes it to her mouth and takes a sip from the straw. Her face softens, and then breaks into a joyful smile. Her eyes radiate performance. The researchers recommend.
I wanted to compliment them. Neuroscience is an area that is starving with concrete therapy. Few brain drugs work much better than placebo, and when they do, researchers do not understand why. Even Tylenol is a mystery. New methods and techniques can have dramatic effects without obvious mechanisms; the protocols are worked out through trial and error. The promise to improve the lives of people with motor problems and physical disabilities was therefore a great deception. I imagined James playing video games, doing repair work around his house, endless in his career choices, enticing his future children with both arms.