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Monkey Controls Advanced Robot Using Its Mind

In unprecedented demonstration, a monkey with a brain-machine interface commands a seven-degree-of-freedom robotic arm

2 min read
Monkey Controls Advanced Robot Using Its Mind

university of pittsburgh brain machine interface

In a remarkable demonstration of brain-machine interface technology, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have taught a monkey to use just its thoughts to control an advanced robotic arm and perform elaborate maneuvers with it.

It's not the first time a monkey with sensors implanted in its brains has controlledmachines with its mind. But this seven-degrees-of-freedom robot arm is probably the most complex system a monkey has ever mastered with its thoughts alone.

Researchers have long been working to put the brain in direct communication with machines. The hope is one day brain-machine interfaces will allow paralyzed people to operate advanced prosthetics in a natural way. Recent demonstrations have seen animals and humans controlling ever more complex devices.

But the experiments at the University of Pittsburgh, led by Dr. Andrew Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology, appear to involve an unprecedented degree of complexity in terms of the robotic arm, the level of control, and the difficulty of the manipulations demonstrated. Watch:

The video above shows the experiment. Note the monkey on the right side of the screen. It uses its right arm to tap a button. (Its left arm is gently restrained inside a tube.) This triggers the robotic manipulator labeled DENSO [left side of the screen] to position a black knob at an arbitrary point in space. The monkey then controls its articulated robotic arm to grasp the knob.

After gently touching the knob, the monkey places its mouth on a straw: it then gets a drink reward. (Actually, the animal places its mouth on the straw before even touching the knob; that's because it has learned, from repetition, that it's about to get the reward.) After that, both robotic arms reset. Again, the monkey taps the button, waits for the knob's new position, and readily and precisely moves its robotic arm to get a drink.

In this experiment, the monkey received two brain implants: one in the hand area and another in the arm area of its motor cortex. The implants monitor the firing of motor neurons and send this data to a computer, which translates the patterns into commands for the robotic arm.

In a previous study two years ago, Dr. Schwartz and his team taught a macaque to control a simpler mechanical arm to feed itself. This was a four-degrees-of-freedom arm with shoulder joints, an elbow, and a simple gripper.

Now the researchers have added three more degrees of freedom by adding an articulated wrist, which can perform roll, pitch and yaw movements. And the arm itself was replaced by a larger and nimbler manipulator. Although the video doesn't show it, the monkey can not only touch the knob but also precisely turn it by rotating the mechanical wrist.

Dr. Schwartz was kind enough to share this much with us, but he says more details will have to wait until he and his colleagues publish their results. We'll be waiting.

Photo and video: Dr. Andrew Schwartz/University of Pittsburgh

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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