Robot arm can be controlled with thoughts, no brain implant needed

Researchers at the University of Minnesota claim to have made a significant breakthrough in the field of neural interfaces by creating a system which allows people to control a robotic arm using just their thoughts.

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the research is particularly impressive because it allows a robot arm to be made to manipulate objects in a complex 3D environment without the use of a brain implant.

“We demonstrated that a group of 8 human subjects can control a robotic arm for 3D reach and grasp tasks using a noninvasive brain-computer interface (BCI),” Bin He, a University of Minnesota biomedical engineering professor and lead researcher on the study, told Digital Trends. “This represents an important advancement as noninvasive BCI does not have [the] risks or costs of invasive BCI which requires surgery and implants, and may have implications to help millions of patients who can be benefited from such a technology.”

Instead of a brain implant, the technology involves an electroencephalography (EEG) setup, which records electrical activity from the brain using a cap kitted out with 64 electrodes. Signal processing and AI machine learning technology then decodes these thoughts and turns them into specific actions for the robot to perform.

bci-umn-photo-2016-12-13
College of Science and Engineering, University of Minnesota
College of Science and Engineering, University of Minnesota

In the study, subjects started by learning to control a cursor on a computer screen. They then moved into the physical world by getting the robot arm to pick up objects on a table and place them on a three-layer shelf. All of the participants were able to control the arm, and success rates for precisely moving the objects ranged from 70-80 percent.

“We plan to move forward to test [the] prosthetic arm down the road to directly test the applicability of noninvasive BCI technology to help patients,” Professor He continued.

While at present this remains a fascinating futuristic research project, it is easy to see how this kind of technology might dramatically improve the lives of people with disabilities — in addition to having other applications involving the remote control of robots.

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