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Rat, Monkey, and Man Control Robots With Their Minds

As brain-machine interfaces become more advanced, so do the devices they can control

2 min read
Rat, Monkey, and Man Control Robots With Their Minds

Researchers have long been working to put the brain in direct communication with machines. Recent demonstrations have seen animals and humans controlling ever more complex devices—advanced robotic arms and even prosthetic limbs that can provide tactile sensations. Here’s how a monkey, a rat, and a man were able to move matter with their minds. 

Monkey Do

At the University of Pittsburgh’s MotorLab, Andrew Schwartz and his colleagues have taught a monkey to control a robotic manipulator with 7 degrees of freedom. The monkey received two brain implants, one in the hand area and another in the arm area of its motor cortex. When the researchers place a knob at arbitrary positions in front of the animal, it can maneuver the robotic arm to grasp the knob. Then the monkey can precisely turn the knob by controlling the arm’s mechanical wrist. It’s probably the most complex machine a monkey has ever mastered with its thoughts alone.

Photo: Justin Sanchez/University of Florida
University of Florida

Roborat

Justin Sanchez and his colleagues at the University of Florida’s Neuroprosthetics Research Group, in Gainesville, are developing a new class of software decoders to translate brain activity into control signals for prosthetic devices. Although other brain-machine interfaces are static, these decoders adapt their parameters as the brain itself does when learning a new task. Using them, graduate student Babak Mahmoudi showed how a rat could learn to control a robotic gripper that bears no resemblance to its own limbs. Essentially, the rat used brain activity to perform an action unrelated to any movement it could make on its own, as if the decoder were an extension of the rat’s brain.

Photo: Universita Campus Bio-Medico Di Roma
Universities in Pisa and Rome, Italy

I, Android

A group of scientists at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna di Pisa and the Università Campus Bio-Medico di Roma, in Italy, have demonstrated how an amputee can control a robotic hand after having electrodes surgically implanted on two different nerves of his arm. The electrodes captured signals originating in the man’s brain, allowing him to wiggle the mechanical fingers and hold objects. What’s more, the nerve-machine interface was bidirectional: The robotic hand had touch sensors that could send electrical signals back to the nerves, and the man’s brain translated them into a touch felt on a hand lost years before.

This article originally appeared in print as "Mammalian Mind Over Matter."

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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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