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The Andromeda Evolution (2020): The Andromeda Strain Has Evolved and So Have Brain Machine Interface

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton is a classic science fiction novel. When it was published in 1969, it created the techno-thriller genre. And looking through the website, it is the first work of fiction where robots are used for a biological outbreak. Fifty-one years later, Daniel H. Wilson, author of the more recent robot classic Robopocalypse, has written an authorized sequel, The Andromeda Strain. It is fast-paced, has the same military after-action report style of writing and the characters use lots of robots in realistic ways (especially as the protagonist is James Stone- son of Jeremy Stone, the Project Wildfire team lead from the first novel- and he's is a roboticist!) There’s even a surprise “reveal” near the end of the novel. Overall, it is a great read and recommended both for robot fans and those who like hard science thrillers. It’s also a great book for exploring brain-machine interfaces.

When The Andromeda Strain was published in 1969, the standard for working with hazardous materials was cumbersome robot manipulators originally developed in 1948 to handle radioactive material. Raymond Goertz, then at for Argonne National Laboratory, developed a mechanical, bilateral master-slave manipulator. Bilateral master-slave manipulator doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, so it was ripe for a nickname. Fortunately, six years earlier Robert Heinlein had written a popular sci-fi short story, Waldo, which centered around a robot working with nuclear material. As a result, “waldo” became a common term for referring to those types of manipulators.

In a clip of The Andromeda Strain movie, you can see how the arms work and the relatively unnatural movements the operator has to use to get the arms to accomplish the task. In real life, teleoperators often get carpal tunnel syndrome - no surprise when you think about doing that for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. George Lucas’ movie THX1138 also had waldos. You can see why operators had to be drugged to deal with using the arms.

Despite the appalling user experience- a tribute to how people adapt to their tools- the robots worked, they filled an important niche, and the Department of Energy still uses them to this day.

As a side note, I was part of a VIP roboticist team that visited Japanese and DOE facilities in the US to evaluate the use of robots for decommissioning our highly contaminated, aging Cold War nuclear facilities. We suggested replacing the waldos with more advanced robots and more user-friendly teleoperation mechanisms in order to prevent the costly, and life-threatening, accidents that happen from time to time. DOE officials said the waldos were so pervasively used and that people were already trained on them that the economics to replace the robots, rebuild the hot cells, and retrain the workers didn’t justify the switch. New was better, but not better enough.

Whereas The Andromeda Strain had only a “Waldo” robot, The Andromeda Evolution has lots of reasonably accurate robots. There are drones (though with truly amazing battery life), two real-life robots (Canadarm, Robonaut), robot crawlers, and lots of teleoperation. Yay robots! Of all the robots used by the characters in the book, perhaps the most interesting are those used by Dr. Sophie Kline through a brain-machine interface (BMI).

Dr. Kline has juvenile amyotrophic lateral sclerosis which motivated her to be a very early adopter of BMI. Through extraordinary intellect and drive, she is on the International Space Station and a member of the secret Project Wildfire team that has been on the lookout for more instances of the Andromeda strain or, worse, a new version. Interestingly, Heinlein had been inspired to write Waldo by a Popular Science article on a man with myasthenia gravis who developed mechanisms to help compensate for his disease -

Getting back to The Andromeda Evolution, this introduces the question of what are brain-machine interfaces and what is the status?

Brain-machine interfaces are primarily being researched for the control of prostheses- legs and arms. Currently a person moves their prosthetic either through Bowden cables which transfer movements of other muscles or through non-invasive detection of EMG or EEG signals, which are indirect neural indications of what the user is commanding the missing limb to do. While technically using non-invasive indicators is a brain-machine interface, the term connotes a direct, invasive, link between the part of the brain that is generating the movement commands to the device. This direct link would allow more precise and faster movements. So a BMI is often the secret sauce in cyborgs in fiction, like the movie Alita: Battle Angel or the lovely short story Messenger.

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