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Enter the Matrix: The rise of brain-computer interfaces

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In 2012, a paralyzed woman with a 96-electrode sensor the size of a baby aspirin implanted onto the surface of her brain was able to think about steering a robotic arm toward a canister with a straw in it, move the canister toward her mouth, tilt it so the straw fell into her mouth, and take a sip.

It was the first time in 15 years that the woman, who was one of two patients doing experiments with the BrainGate implant, had picked up anything, let alone served herself a beverage, and the look on her face when she finished said it all.

“There was a moment of true joy, true happiness,” John Donoghue, the neuroscientist who pioneered the BrainGate implant a decade ago, said in a Brown University video. “It was beyond the fact that it was an accomplishment … it was really a moment where we helped somebody do something that they had wished to do for many years.”

It was a seminal moment in the relatively new world of brain-computer interfaces, where neuroscientists and engineers are working on building implants and robotic limbs and even entire exoskeletons to allow people whose movements are limited by spinal cord injuries, or Parkinson’s disease, or strokes to override these physical limitations and have their brains communicate directly with machinery instead.

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August 7, 2015
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