Connecting human thought to a machine is a pursuit that once only existed in science fiction, but now Swiss scientists have made the impossible a reality. Researchers at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have demonstrated that a partially paralyzed person could control a robot by thought alone, giving hope that someday immobilized people will be able to interact with even remote environments through pseudo-avatars.
To begin, the team used a head cap to record the brain signals of Mark-Andre Duc, a partial quadriplegic who was located at a hospital over 50 miles away. This system is unique because it doesn’t require any invasive neural implants, simply an EEG cap fitted with electrodes. The electrical signals captured were analyzed and transmitted to a foot-tall robot located in the Lausanne research lab that was then able to replicate the patient’s intentions. For example, when the patient was asked to imagine walking forward, a computer in the hospital decoded the electrical signals by laptop and then transmitted the corresponding command to the robot which moved accordingly. By building a robot complete with camera, screen, and microphone, the hope is that immobilized users will be able to extend their virtual presence to any location, especially those which were previously inaccessible or difficult to reach by wheelchair in the first place.
Despite the demonstrated successes, the innovation is not without impediment. While asking the patient to focus on a single task didn’t pose a problem at the onset, a need for extended periods of extreme concentration presented a difficult challenge. To help mitigate a wandering mind, the team programmed the computer to interpret thought in a dry, mechanical-like fashion. Once a command like ‘move my right hand’ was issued by the patient, the computer executed it until receiving a command to stop or encountering an obstacle.
Beyond the obvious implications for those with disabilities and changing face of human-machine interactions, the research also pushes the boundaries of what constitutes a normal social interaction. With this research in place, someday very soon we may all have to adjust to the idea of virtual presences manifesting in the physical world, which may well extend beyond simply assisting the immobilized.
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