The Science of Two Minds, One Machine in 'Pacific Rim'

Two minds have proven better than one for certain brain-machine interface tasks

2 min read
The Science of Two Minds, One Machine in 'Pacific Rim'

Man and machine merge inside robots the size of skyscrapers to do battle against equally huge monsters in the film "Pacific Rim." The Hollywood technobabble used to explain why two human pilots must control the huge robots is pure science fiction, but real scientific studies have found promise in the idea of two minds being better than one—at least in brain-computer interfaces.

First, the technobabble. "Pacific Rim," directed by Guillermo del Toro, plays with the idea of human pilots merging minds and memories to jointly control the huge humanoid robots called Jaegers. One pilot controls the left hemisphere and the other pilot controls the right hemisphere of each Jaeger's "brain"—supposedly because a single pilot can't handle the "neural load" for interfacing with the gigantic machines. If the two pilots punch or run in unison, so does the Jaeger.

The display of mind control in "Pacific Rim" remains just a fantasy for researchers working with real brain-computer interfaces (also known as brain-machine interfaces). Certain technologies such as electroencephalography (EEG) headsets or caps have allowed humans to practice crude mind control over flying quadrotor drones and even cars. But limits in EEG's ability to detect the human brain's electrical signals mean that brain-computer interface users must concentrate to do even the simplest tasks.

Here is where two minds can prove better than one. A University of Essex paper on "cooperative brain-computer interfaces" found that two people could produce clearer and more consistent EEG signals than just one person while attempting to exert mind control over a simulated spaceship.

The results still proved more cumbersome than, say, using a joystick, but they hint at how cooperation could pave the way for brain-computer interface technology to become more effective. Ricardo Poli, a computer science professor at the University of Essex, in the U.K., presented the work with his colleagues at the 2013 International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces in Santa Monica, Calif.

Similarly intriguing results on cooperative brain-computer interfaces came from a 2011 paper published in the journal PLoS One. Two researchers from the University of California in San Diego found that the accuracy of EEG predicting an arm-reaching motion improved dramatically by fusing the EEG signals from groups of five, 10, 15, and 20 people.

Such results are still a far cry from Hollywood fantasies of two pilots controlling a giant robot with the same natural ease of moving their own bodies. And perhaps brain-computer interfaces will improve to the point where they can effectively detect the brain signals from a single person. But for now, the idea of two heads being better than one for mind-control technology has a kernel of truth.

Photo: Warner Bros.

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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