Researchers Control an Animal with Human Thoughts

This breakthrough could improve virtual and augmented reality, surveillance, and reconnaissance. 


Have you ever considered controlling a group of animals with your thoughts? You could have them attack your enemies, protect you, pull off heists, and just in general, do your bidding. We marvel when characters, like Aquaman, Vixen, Cinderella, Willard, or the Rat King, communicate with animals, and send them off on missions. But could such a power ever exist in real life?

Perhaps we couldn’t form human-like alliances with other organisms. But we could control their movements with our mere thoughts, which in a way, is even more astounding. This was made evident in a study published recently, in the Journal of Bionic Engineering.

Here, South Korean researchers developed a system, using a brain-computer interface (BCI), to make an animal obey the thoughts of its controller. The scientists likened it to the 2009 movie Avatar, where a human controls an alien body with his mind.

Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), proved that with their system, they could control the movements of a turtle. Sure, it’s not a man eating tiger or a pair of shoplifting ferrets. Not even a vicious snapping turtle that could say, cleave a tree branch in two. Just your average, run-of-the-mill turtle. But hey, science has to start somewhere.

The truth is, the ability to control another organism with your mind is still pretty amazing. Thanks to advances in computing and electronics, previous studies have shown that we can control machines with our thoughts, such as a prosthetic limb, a car, a drone, or even a robot. It’s also been used to read another’s thoughts—through a series of Morse code flashes that were projected behind the “listener’s” eyes.

Man controls a pinball machine with his mind. Getty Images.

There’s been work in inter-species mind control too, involving insects. Experiments with cockroaches and locusts have shown some success. Scientists are currently working on being able to hack a dragonfly and control where it goes. Equip it with a little digital camera and you’ve got a pint-size spy. Still, those methods are invasive.

Professor Pil, Seung-Lee, of the Mechanical Engineering Department and colleague Sung, Ho-Jo of the Computing School, decided to take a different approach. They created “a conceptual system that can guide an animal’s moving path by controlling its instinctive escape behavior,” according to the press release. They chose to work with turtles specifically, because it has a certain level of cognitive ability. Also, they can recognize white light and instinctively move toward it. So how does the system work?

KAIST scientists decided to tap into the turtle's instincts, in order to control it, its escape behavior. Turtles naturally move away from obstacles or hazards and towards white light. So researchers decided to hack this predictable behavior with a BCI.

Their system includes a swiveling half-cylinder that surrounds the turtle’s head, only letting a small window of light through. The semi-cylinder can move up to 36 degrees in either direction. By placing white light in the direction in which the operator wants the turtle to go, he or she can "drive" and “steer” it.

The BCI-HMD system. By: KAIST.

The operator in this study wore a rig, composed of a brain-computer interface (BCI) combined with a head-mounted display (HMD), now known as the BCI-HMD system. Meanwhile, the turtle wore a “cyborg system,” mounted on its shell. This includes a computer control module (a Raspberry-Pi), a servo motor, a battery, a Wi-Fi transceiver, and a video camera.  

So how does it work? The operator can see the live video feed from turtle-mounted camera, through the HMD. Using the feed, the operator decides where the turtle should go. Here’s the really amazing part.

Through thought commands alone, electroencephalography (EEG) waves, or brain waves, the operator can move the cylinder, altering the direction the light comes from, and so telling the turtle to move left or right, go forward, or remain stationary. This signal travels through the BCI to the turtle’s rig, via Wi-Fi.

Researchers tested it on a variety of surfaces including grass and gravel, and with a number of different obstacles in the turtle’s path, such as trees or shallow water. In each test, the operator was able to maneuver the turtle expertly. Scientists believe these findings could help improve virtual and augmented reality, and also be used in surveillance and military reconnaissance. After all, who would suspect a friendly, nonchalant turtle? One drawback though, it isn’t exactly the fastest critter, which counts when it comes time to making a clean getaway.

To learn more about BCIs, click here: 

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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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