Melded Minds Control Robots in 'Pacific Rim'


Guillermo del Toro never fails to create an imaginative, breathtaking world in his pictures -- and his upcoming giant monster flick "Pacific Rim" promises to continue this trend.

Now I'm a long-time Godzilla/Gamera fan, so naturally he had me at mechs vs. kaiju. But as this trailer illustrates, del Toro's magic goes deeper on this one. Humans pilot their robotic Jaegers via a neural link, but since that's too much cognitive heavy lifting for a single mind, two pilots have to control the titan via a mind meld called "the drift." It's a fantastic story element since it strengthens the presence of the human characters and gives them something less-Voltron to do for an hour and a half.

Memories wash together and secrets surface as two minds become one in the Jaeger's systems. But is this all plot-serving magic? Or is there real science behind it all.

The Science of Mind Melding Robotics

For starters, let's remember that monkeys can already control robots with their minds. Back in 2008, 12-pound Idoya commanded a robot to walk via electrodes implanted in her brain. The electrodes monitored upwards of 300 neurons and predicted her leg movements with 90 percent accuracy. So suddenly human brain-pilots don't seem quite that far fetched.

But hold on. We also live in a world where, thanks to neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, two rats share brains and synch movements. And soon humans may get in on the brain-bonded action as well.

A current University of Essex program aims to use brain-computer interface (BCI) technology to allow two human pilots to control a virtual spaceship with their linked minds. There's no memory-sharing, but the plans call for both test subjects to wear sensor caps and focus on eight directional cogs to move the ship. The idea here is that since the task of piloting a space vessel demands a great deal of concentration, you're better off throwing two cooperating brains at it. When the two pilots disagree on a move, they cancel each other out.

In an interview with Science Omega, Professor Riccardo Poli said that while a single person with a joystick can outperform two people joined with a BCI, there's a tipping point. Link up enough brains and a single human with physical controls simply can't keep up.

So... now imagine a future in which a dozen linked human brains command a spaceship, a corporation or even a giant, monster-bashing robot. Is it cooler or weirder than you expected?


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.