Disabled patients could “mind-meld” with robots

A new, noninvasive method for recording patterns of brain activity could give “locked-in” patients –the ability to interact with others and even give the impression of being physically present with friends and family. With brain-machine interface systems people can control robots, prosthetics or cursors with conscious thought. But this often requires fatiguing concentration, according to José del R. Millán, of Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

Millán’s goal is to make robot control as easy as driving a car on a highway. A partially autonomous robot would allow a user to stop concentrating on tasks he or she would normally do subconsciously, such as following someone or avoiding running into walls. If the robot encounters an unexpected event and has to make a split-second decision, however, the user’s thoughts can override the robot’s artificial intelligence. Millán and colleagues built a telepresent robot to test their technology.

They modified a commercially available robot called Robotino, which looks like a platform on 3 wheels, and can avoid obstacles on its own using infrared sensors. On top of the robot, the researchers placed a laptop running Skype, over a wireless internet connection. This allowed the human controller to see where the robot was going, and because the laptop showed a video of the user, it allowed others to interact with the user as though the user were actually there. The user wore a cap of tiny electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes, to translate brain waves into navigation commands and transmit them to the robot.

Millán’s group has shown that with a bit of practice, a healthy person can control the robot without much effort. He found that paraplegics performed just as well as the healthy subjects, Millán and his colleagues reported this week in Boston.

Millán says that the bed-bound patients were excited to take part in the study. “This opens a new possibility for families,” he says, who could interact with bed-bound loved ones over a video connection without needing to sit at a computer. ~ Science Now, Sep 6

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