Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Mind over Motor: Controlling Robots with Your Thoughts

Mind over Motor: Controlling Robots with Your Thoughts
From: Discover Magazine - 12/2011 - Page 16
By: Jason Daley

Over recent months, in Jose del R. Millan's computer science lab in
Switzerland, a little round robot, similar to a Roomba with a laptop mounted
on it, bumped its way through an office space filled with furniture and
people. Nothing special, except the robot was being controlled from a clinic
more than 60 miles away - and not with a joystick or keyboard, but with the
brain waves of a paralyzed patient.

The robot's journey was an experiment in shared control, a type of
brain-machine interface that merges conscious thought and algorithms to give
disabled patients finer mental control over devices that help them
communicate or retrieve objects. If the user experiences a mental misfire,
Millan's software can step in to help. Instead of crashing down the stairs,
for instance, the robot would recalculate to find the door.

Such technology is a potential life changer for the tens of thousands of
people suffering from locked-in syndrome, a type of paralysis that leaves
patients with only the ability to blink. The condition is usually incurable,
but Millan's research could make it more bearable, allowing patients to
engage the world through a robotic proxy. "The last 10 years have been like a
proof of concept," says Justin Sanchez, director of the Neuroprosthetics
Research Group at the University of Miami, who is also studying shared
control. "But the research is moving fast. Now there is a big push to get
these devices to people who need them for everyday life."

Millan's system, announced in September at Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique
Federale de Lausanne, is a big step in making brain-machine interfaces more
useful by splitting the cognitive workload between the patient and the
machine. Previously, users had to fully concentrate on one of three commands
- turn left, turn right, or do nothing - creating specific brain wave
patterns detected by an electrode-studded cap. That system exhausted users by
forcing them to think of the command constantly. With shared control, a robot
quickly interprets the user's intention, allowing him to relax mentally.
Millan is now developing software that is even better at weeding out
unrelated thoughts and determining what the user really wants from the

Although the disabled will probably be the first beneficiaries of Millian's
technology, we may all eventually end up under the scanner. Millan and auto
manufacturer Nissan recently announced they are collaborating on a shared
control car that will scan the driver's brain waves and eyes and step in if
the mind and the Altima begin to wander.

Jose del R. Millan

Defitech Foundation Chair in Non-Invasive Brain-Machine Interfacehttp://cnbi.epfl.ch/

Disabled Patients Mind-Meld With Robotshttp://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2011/09/disabled-patients-mind-meld-with.html

Justin Sanchezhttp://www.themiamiproject.org/page.aspx?pid=878

Neuroprosthetics Research Grouphttp://www.bme.miami.edu/nrg/

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