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Researchers Create ‘Rat Cyborgs’ That People Control With Their Minds

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Rat cyborg robot mind control

(Credit: Azimuth_A/shutterstock)

I’ll just come right out and say it: Scientists have created human-controlled rat cyborgs.

Lest you think this is some media sensationalism at work, here’s the actual title of the paper under discussion, which came out last week in Scientific Reports: “Human Mind Control of Rat Cyborg’s Continuous Locomotion with Wireless Brain-to-Brain Interface.” That pretty much says it all.

Some of this tech — such as brain-brain interfaces (BBIs) and rat cyborgs — is nothing new in science, so in a way this just a small step in an already existing race. But, put another way: people are controlling rat cyborgs with their freaking brains now. Wirelessly.

The Main Brain

Here’s the deal.

BBIs are themselves based on stringing together BMIs, or brain-machine interfaces. These already exist, and present a cool way for people to control prosthetics or other devices. Apparently they can also function the other way around — instead of a brain controlling a device, a machine can alter brain patterns or “import tactile information back to the brain,” as the study’s authors put it. So BMIs allow for mechanically “controlling” others’ brains.

In effect, it works like this: A human has movement-related thoughts, which an EEG picks up and transfers to a computer. The computer translates that signal into “control instructions,” which get wirelessly beamed into the stimulator on the back of the rat and then into its brain via electrodes (which is, by the way, now a rat cyborg because of its cybernetic parts). The rat then responds to the instructions by actually doing them. All this tech exists, but for some reason “very few previous studies have explored BBIs across different brains,” the authors write — so they fixed that with a very real, actual experiment that involved humans wirelessly controlling rat cyborgs through mazes.

I can’t stress enough how real this is, or how often the authors used the phrase “rat cyborg” in their peer-reviewed scientific paper.

Testing Rat Cyborgs

The researchers, all from Zhejiang University in China, explain that they wanted a system that worked nearly instantaneously and with high accuracy, due to a living creatures’ “agility and self-consciousness.” And, apparently, that’s what they got.

“With this interface, our manipulators were able to mind control a rat cyborg to smoothly complete maze navigation tasks,” the authors write, almost gloating.

The human controller was non-invasively hooked into the BBI, where thinking about moving their left or right arms would command the rat to turn in those directions, and blinking corresponded to forward. The study used six rat cyborgs, well-trained and previously prepared for such control. The final part of the system involved a camera showing the rat’s real-time reactions, allowing the human controller to get instant visual feedback.

At first the maze was simple, a multi-armed set of tubes that met in the middle, like the spokes of a wheel. The idea was to use it to practice commanding the rat through turns. Then the mazes got more complex, with tight turns, multiple levels and a specific prescribed path. The rat cyborgs handled well, overall, with improved control over time; two of the rats apparently performed flawlessly.

(For their parts, the human controllers were subject to fatigue and easily distracted, but over time they improved, too, cultivating what the writers call “a tacit understanding between the human and the rat cyborg.”)

Nothing To Worry About…

I know what you’re thinking (a chilling phrase in light of the subject matter): Is this for real?

“The Zhang paper IS for real, and I don’t see anything unplausible about it,” says University of Washington brain researcher Andrea Stocco, who wasn’t involved with the work. “The results … are impressive but believable.”

As for next steps, the study’s authors discuss ways to improve the technology, but notably don’t suggest any particular applications, perhaps leaving those as an exercise to the reader. They do call the whole idea of BBI transmitting information between two entities “intriguingly possible,” and add, “furthermore, information flow will be made bidirectional and communicative between two human individuals.”

Stocco suggests the tech could be involved in improved augmented reality systems, remote control of an animal through tight spaces — or even an expert surgeon remotely controlling a doctor’s hands in a delicate operation. Ultimately, he says, “the holy grail of BBI would be sharing rich content that cannot be better expressed in words, such as emotions and feelings. We are still so far from that, but, of course, that would be the dream.”

For his part, Harvard lab director Seung-Schik Yoo (also unaffiliated with the paper) imagines such technology could benefit people even more directly. “I personally want to use brain stimulation [for its] neurotherapeutic applications,” he says. “I am one of the believers who think that brain stimulators will be part of our daily lives as ‘neuroprostheses’ some day.

“Of course, we have to fear the misuse of the technology and prevent it from happening,” he adds. “Many new technologies are a double-edged sword.”

But Stocco isn’t too worried. “We are very, very far from any application of these technologies on humans against their will,” he says. And anyway, it’s not like we need BBI to manipulate people even now. “Scandals like Cambridge Analytica remind us that social media feeds and advertisement campaigns are just the good old-fashioned way to achieve the same goals (making other people do something they wouldn’t do otherwise).” So really, this research is just bringing up some of the same old ethical dilemmas we should already be used to dealing with.

Only, you know, featuring rat cyborgs.

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Ecology

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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Ecology

That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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