Edwardo Robot Hands

SittingNow.co.uk continue their rebooted ‘CounterTech’ series, with another great article from DisInfo’s Joe McFall:

Almost 'throwing some horns', which would be handy at metal shows

Almost 'throwing some horns', which would be handy at metal shows

This week, Italian scientists announced that in a month-long experiment conducted last year, an amputee’s nervous system was attached to a mechanical hand disconnected from his body. The man, Pierpaolo Petruzziello, was not only able to move the robotic appendage, but was apparently able to receive feedback and feel sensations from the hand. From the Baltimore Sun:

  • The Italy-based team said at a news conference in Rome on Wednesday that in 2008 it implanted electrodes into the nerves located in what remained of Petruzziello’s left arm, which was cut off in a crash some three years ago.
  • The prosthetic was not implanted on the patient, only connected through the electrodes. During the news conference, video was shown of Petruzziello as he concentrated to give orders to the hand placed next to him.
  • During the month he had the electrodes connected, he learned to wiggle the robotic fingers independently, make a fist, grab objects and make other movements.

This story is not unlike last year’s story of mechanical-arm-moving monkeys, in which electrodes were wired directly into the brains of monkeys, allowing them to learn how to move remote robotic arms to reach and grab for tasty treats. The main difference, here, of course, is the proof-of-concept that we can do the same thing with the human nervous system. This reminds me of my favorite Marshall McLuhan quotes (from Understanding Media, 1964):

By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth and bodily heat-controls — all such extensions of our bodies, including cities — will be translated into information systems. Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of meditation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide.

This quote highlights the fact that we can now extend the human nervous system outside of the body in a very literal way, in a way well beyond McLuhan’s metaphorical descriptions from 45 years ago. Some key points to take away from the Italian scientist’s experiment, in light of what we already know from our friendly cyborg monkeys:
  • The human subject need not be an amputee in order to be a cyborg. Any person can be jacked into a robotic appendage and be trained to move it around at will.
  • The appendage need not be a robotic hand, or even analogous to an existing biological appendage. There no reason, theoretically, that a human can’t be jacked into a robotic car, or a robotic plane or a robotic space cruiser, and learn to control it. Forget the dangers of embodied artificially intelligent brains, we are now able to embody human consciousness into any arbitrary robotic form with appropriate sensory feedback.
  • All of this can be done at a distance. A robot can be embodied with human consciousness remotely across any arbitrary distance.
Of course this is all very exciting news. So exciting, in fact, that we can overlook the looming possibility of cyborg stormtroopers and armored vehicles being controlled virtually by soldiers sitting thousands of miles away in rows of isolation tanks under Dick Cheney’s secret mountain lair with electrodes wired into their skulls. The medical applications of this technology are tremendous, so there’s no need to dwell on what kinds of heinous future scenarios such technology promises to bring.

Besides, there’s no moral difference between this sort of nightmarish future vision and our present reality. The only difference between thought-controlled remote death machines and technology currently in use (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Afghanistan, for example) is a joystick. The trend in military technology is increasingly toward abstraction of the agent-soldier from the actual event of homicide. The danger is that this abstraction becomes a sort of absolution, and that physical distance becomes emotional distance. It’s as if keeping the soldier away from actual battlefield interaction keeps us all from engaging with what is being done by our governments, with our money and with our citizens, to people in faraway lands. It keeps us abstracted physically and emotionally from murderous acts done in our names, and gives us a nice, tidy, sense of absolution.

Joe Mcfall

Joe McFall received his undergraduate degree in Linguistic Anthropology from Emory University in 1998, and went on to receive two Masters degrees, in Linguistics and Artificial Intelligence, from the University of Georgia in 2005 and 2007. He holds a lifetime interest in culture and counterculture, fringe science, paranormal, alternate history and conspiracy theory. He works as a software developer and lives in Atlanta, GA. He is also, alongside our buddies Raymond Wiley and Austin Gandy, one of the hosts of Disinformation the Podcast, Disinformation World News, and OutThere Radio.