We Are All Bewildered Machines


Image: NAUTILUS
Bewilderment is the antidote to scientific reductionism.

By Kevin Berger | NAUTILUS

When did you realize you were a machine? A fancy machine, for sure. But one whose parts and operations can be described like the components of a computer. I remember a day in 2012 when this thought pierced me to the bone. I was in the lab of John Donoghue at Brown University. Donoghue is a professor of neuroscience and a pioneer in the development of brain-computer interfaces. With easygoing authority, Donoghue was detailing for me the ways he and his colleagues taught Cathy Hutchinson, a 58-year-old woman who had lost control of her limbs in a stroke, to control a robotic arm with her thoughts and sip coffee from a bottle. It was a matter of basic math and biology, Donoghue said, with, yes, some sophisticated technology.

Surgeons implanted a microelectrode array with 100 sensors in Hutchinson’s motor cortex, the brain’s control center for movement. Donoghue then had Hutchinson watch a cursor moving across a computer screen and imagine she was moving the cursor with a mouse. As she pictured moving the cursor left and right, forward and backward, the microelectrodes picked up electrical “spikes” in her neurons. Donoghue’s team recorded the pattern of spikes associated with each direction, then programmed the robotic arm to recognize them.

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