Look at that monkey, feeding itself what looks to be some delicious pastry with a robotic arm that it controls WITH ITS MIND. To wit, from the BBC:
With the probes inserted into the monkeys’ motor cortices, computer software was used to interpret the brain’s electrical impulses and translate them into movement through the robotic arm.
With a bit of training, the monkeys could change speed and direction. The scientists speculate the monkeys began to regard the prosthetic limb as their own, after first observing the movement and then, by observing, activating brain cells that send the appropriate signal.
There are two aspects of this I find fascinating – first, the potential application for those with spinal cord injuries or for amputees. The second was this observation from the same article:
However, this important paper confirms that the brain controls movement just by planning where to go, rather than by directing individual muscles how to make the limb get there.
This calls to mind some arguments made by psychologists and sociologists – and of course amateurs of both who make their livings in the ad business – that we decide before we know that we’ve decided, and that we typically act in simple mimicry of others. Perhaps I just can’t give up the free will ghost, but it seems to me that this robot monkey experiment actually shows that there are multiple, yet nearly instantaneous, aspects of decision-making. Planning and directing and acting can all happen so simultaneously as to be nearly impossible to disentangle. But, arguably, the ‘true’ decision happens at the moment just before we plan.
Oh robot monkeys, you have so much to teach us.