Of Two Minds

The back story

2 min read


PHOTO: Randi Silberman

We knew early on that the lead article in this issue, which describes ­theories about how the brain creates the mind, was going to be an unusual challenge. It would have to explain one of the most elusive subjects in all of science, and it would also have to take a critical look at claims that technologists are on the verge of ­creating a mind in silico [see our special report, " The Singularity]."

Executive Editor Glenn Zorpette knew exactly who should write it. ”John Horgan is probably the only writer who is smart enough, cranky enough, and skilled enough to pull it off,” he remembers thinking.

Horgan [above] and Zorpette worked together in the mid-1980s at IEEE Spectrum. They would ­interview technologists and officials during the day and drink beer, eat Dominican food, and argue about politics after work. Once, having ­become lost driving to Albuquerque from Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico, they stumbled into a huge, exuberant ceremony in the desert with hundreds of Native Americans. Amid the feathers, bells, and body paint, the two journalists were conspicuous in blue blazers, wing-tip shoes, and Ray-Bans.

It was at Spectrum that Horgan began forging the probing, ­impious style that characterizes his best works. He did smart, tough ­pieces on underground nuclear ­testing, arms control, and biomedical ­devices. ­Later, at Scientific American magazine, where he and ­Zorpette worked and were occasional ­hockey teammates in the mid-1990s, he profiled scientists, technologists, and philosophers in stories that were free of the deference typical of that kind of article.

”At some point I felt that I could serve science better if I were ­skeptical rather than reverential,” says Horgan, who now directs the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J. He is the author of three books and is a contributor to ­Bloggingheads.tv.

Zorpette says, ”When I was in my early 20s, John made me ­understand that no career was more fun, ­worthwhile, and interesting than print journalism. His curiosity, skill, and fierce intelligence are what I have been trying to match for my whole career.”

For more articles, videos, and special features, go to The Singularity Special Report.

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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