A Better Way for Brains to Control Robotic Arms

A brain implant reads a paraplegic man’s intentions to let him pick up a beer

4 min read
A Better Way for Brains to Control Robotic Arms
Photo: Spencer Kellis & Christian Klaes/Caltech

/img/HRBMIErikSorto-1434464857340.jpgCheers! Erik Sorto uses a brain-controlled robotic arm to take a drink. “It gives me great pleasure to be part of the solution for improving paralyzed patients’ lives,” he says.Photo: Spencer Kellis & Christian Klaes/Caltech

Erik Sorto had been paralyzed for 10 years when hevolunteered for a bold neural engineering experiment: He would receive a brain implant and try to use the signals it recorded to control a robotic arm. Erik had no qualms about signing up for brain surgery, but his mother wasn’t happy about it. “She was just being a mom,” Sorto says with a smile. “She was like, ‘Your brain is the only part of your body that works just fine. Why would you mess with that?’ ”

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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