In an eerie move for science, researchers at Duke University may have just brought us one step closer to realizing Borg technology.
In the "Star Trek" world, the Borg are a collection of species that have been "assimilated" into a hive mind, a sort of pooled brain called the Collective. Now researchers have done a similar thing to monkeys, by networking three monkeys' brains together to create a superbrain, or "brainet," which allowed the three monkeys to work together to perform a mental task.
Although this might sound like the premise for something ominous – perhaps a Borg version of the "Planet of the Apes" – researchers have a more innocent motive. They hope this technology might one day be adapted to create a human brainet that could aid paraplegics with rehab.
For the experiment, up to three monkeys had their brains wired into the same robotic arm. The monkeys were then asked to perform certain tasks with the arm. Interestingly, even though the robotic arm was being controlled by three different monkeys at once, the cacophony of thoughts did not compete with one another. Rather, the monkeys' thoughts seemed to enhance one another. In fact, the experiment was performed more effectively by the monkey hive brain than by individual monkeys.
"They synchronize their brains and they achieve the task by creating a superbrain – a structure that is the combination of three brains," explained Miguel Nicolelis, lead researcher on the study, to New Scientist.
Nicolelis is not new to this kind of research. He is the scientist also responsible for inventing the brain-controlled exoskeleton that allowed a paraplegic to kick off the 2014 World Cup. (If you missed it, you can witness the event yourself here.) He was also part of the research team that recently networked the brains of four rats "through direct brain-to-brain interfaces [that] could provide the core of a new type of computing device: an organic computer."
The successful experiment with monkeys means the next step is a human brainet. Nicolelis promises a "non-invasive" version for humans designed specifically for speeding up the rehabilitation time for severely paralyzed patients. But one has to wonder that if mental tasks become easier and more advanced through brain-networking, that perhaps it wouldn't take long to recognize the benefits of a hive mind beyond medical purposes. That is, assuming such a project can be deemed ethical.
At the very least, such technology certainly has the potential to raise some big philosophical questions.