How would you like to control a robot using your thoughts alone? A research program that brings together thirteen universities and institutes across Europe are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in an attempt to do just that. By detecting changes in the blood flow to various parts of the brain, the machine can detect thought patterns that are then used to control the robot. It’s all part of the very sci-fi-sounding but very real Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-embodiment project.
So far the researchers are only descrambling enough signals to move a Fujitsu HOAP-3 (a miniature humanoid robot platform) left, right, and forward. The robot is self-balancing, and its walking gait has been programmed in advance, so it is essentially like hitting a switch to activate one of the three movements. The system could be adapted to larger humanoids relatively easily.
The signals can be sent over long distances (in this case, from Israel to France) to control the robot with only minor lag. In turn the robot’s on board camera sends a first-person video to its operator, giving them a telepresence (or avatar-like) experience.
The obvious benefits of this technology, particularly for those with physical disabilities, can’t be understated. However, fMRI machines are big, stationary, and expensive, so other brain-machine interfaces may be more practical for the time being (even if they aren’t quite as accurate). One such device can read cortical activity patterns to move a cursor in 2D and 3D space. Researchers have adapted this technology and trained a monkey to control a robot arm with its thoughts alone (Nature). Eventually, the project hopes to provide paralyzed or “locked-in” people a body (robotic or virtual) that they can control with thought alone.
Mind-controlled robots may eventually be put in space, the military, or disaster-response situations, but for now the technology is too limited to control a robot as if you were in its skin. Just as gamers are beginning to discover with the Microsoft Kinect sensor, sometimes it is simply easier to use a standard joystick for controlling game characters. The same is likely to be true for teleoperated robots, where haptic controls and joysticks provide precise, complex control for a wide variety of different actions.