Synaptic Sunday #7 – Mind-Controlled Robotics edition

1) Real-life Avatar: The first mind-controlled robot surrogate

Tirosh Shapira, an Israeli student, controlled the movements of a small robot over a thousand miles away using only his thoughts.

The fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) reads his thoughts, a computer translates those thoughts into commands, and then those commands are sent across the internet to the robot in France. The system requires training: On its own, an fMRI can simply see the real-time blood flow in your brain (pictured below right). Training teaches the system that a particular “thought” (blood flow pattern) equates to a certain command.

Some of the future uses for such technology are medical (for people who have suffered paralysis for example) and military.

Shapira mentions in the article that he “became one with the robot.” How would we come to feel about these robotic extensions of ourselves? If they get damaged or destroyed, would we feel as if a part of us had been killed, or after some disappointment would we settle for any replacement?

2) Mind-controlled robot arms show promise

Using implants to record neuronal activity in parts of the brain associated with the intention to move, researchers were able to help two people with tetraplegia manipulate a robotic arm by thinking about certain actions (e.g. lifting up a cup).

The challenge lies in decoding the neural signals picked up by the participant’s neural interface implant — and then converting those signals to digital commands that the robotic device can follow to execute the exact intended movement. The more complex the movement, the more difficult the decoding task.

This is amazing work.