Moving robots through the use of the mind

April 11, 2014

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

At the opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, which kicks off on June 12, the real star could be the human brain.

A young man wearing the yellow national uniform of Brazil will appear in a wheelchair before the crowd of 70,000 spectators.

His legs will be covered in metal braces, actually a wearable robot that performs movements such as standing and walking by simply visualizing them mentally. The young man is a paraplegic who cannot move his legs at all. His brain will control the robot and enable him to walk, and when he kicks the ball in the field's center circle, a huge cheer will erupt from the crowd.

This project is being led by Miguel Nicolelis, 53, a Brazilian national and professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He is the leading authority in Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI), a technology involving the use of neural signals to control devices. The Brazilian government is also supporting his project as a means of displaying the country's scientific and technological capabilities to the world.

Eight candidates have already been selected for the opening ceremony and are undergoing training that involves moving a picture of a robot on a computer screen with their minds. The field will be whittled down to a final selection of three people, including two substitutes.

In 2000, Nicolelis amazed the world by enabling a monkey to control a robotic arm by monitoring its brain activity when moving its own arm.

“He proved that BMI is possible by succeeding with a monkey, which has human-like qualities,” says Kyoto University professor Yoshio Sakurai, 61, who carries out BMI research in Japan.

Nevertheless, most BMI-related experiments are only carried out in university laboratories and hospitals. Performing one live in front of a global audience would be an unprecedented feat.

“It’s going to be like putting a man on the moon,” says Nicolelis. “It’s a completely new way of showing people who would never have contact with scientific news.”

BMI has shown, in a way that anyone can understand, how recent achievements in brain science research can be utilized to control machines as extensions of the human body.

Research in recent years has shown that functions such as speech and sight are handled by different areas of our brains. Experiments using electrical stimulation have discovered the parts that involved in moving our faces, hands, legs, fingers and more.

Our brains are connected by 10s to 100s of billions of neurons. In Nicolesis' words, they “work together as a symphony” as they exchange information.

During the 1980s, a research team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., studied neural activity in the brains of monkeys, and found a relationship between the direction in which they moved their arms and the amount of activity in certain neurons. For example, one neuron became active when an arm was moved to the right, but was inactive when moved to the left.

This discovery brought about a major advancement in BMI research. Learning the activity patterns of neurons made it possible to understand how our arms work, which in turn enabled a monkey to control a robotic arm as if it was moving its own arm.

At the University of Pittsburgh, professor Andrew Schwartz, 58, who was part of the aforementioned research team at John Hopkins, showed a reporter on a monitor a monkey undergoing BMI training.

The monkey sits in a chair and has cords running to its head. They are attached to electrodes that catch its brain signals and read its arm movements. The monkey moves the robotic arm next to it toward an object. The position of the object shifts every few seconds, but the robotic arm deftly follows it.

BMI could potentially aid ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) sufferers and other people who cannot move their arms or legs. For the last two years, Schwartz has been carrying out experiments with a woman with ALS who has had electrodes implanted in her brain to enable her to control a robotic arm.

“The aim is to make it possible for touch sensors on a robotic arm's fingertips to send signals to the user's brain that replicate sensations like hardness or softness.”

In Japan in 2013, Osaka University professor Toshiki Yoshimine, 63, surgically attached an electrode sheet to the surface of the brain of a man with ALS, which successfully enabled him to move a cursor on a monitor, select characters and form words, and move a robotic arm.

In the United States, inserting electrodes into the brain is the standard method of measuring its activity, but in Japan, non-invasive procedures are the norm.

“It's not as accurate, but it places less strain on test subjects and has greater potential for practical applications in the future,” says Yoshimine.

(This article was written by Hitoki Nakagawa of The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE.)


BMI is being used for various purposes. One is the development of a futuristic home, where occupants can open curtains or turn on air conditioners simply by thinking the command. The first such dwelling in the world is being created by Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, Sekisui House Ltd., Shimadzu Corp. and other partners.

A brainwave-reading device that resembles a pair of headphones would be used to turn switches on by thinking “go right,” or off by thinking “go left.” Technology that can read the instructions of any user is being developed through studying the brain activity of 100 test subjects. Its developers hope to make it commercially viable by 2020, when Japan's aging population rate is estimated to reach 30 percent.

Meanwhile, research is also being carried out for military applications. In the United States, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a branch of the Department of Defense, has invested in BMI research since its early days. One of its achievements is a surveillance system that interfaces with the human brain. In 2012, it was announced that the technology had been successfully developed.

A brainwave-reading device is attached to the user's head, who simply watches a surveillance camera feed. When a suspicious movement such as the appearance of an enemy soldier is seen and transmitted to the brain, brainwaves change, even in response to movements that are seen but the person is unaware of. Surveillance using sensors often results in the unnecessary detection of objects such as falling leaves or animals, but the human brain does not react to such extraneous stimuli.

In the event of an enemy attack, even the tiniest delay in reaction time could determine the fate of numerous soldiers. If this system can be perfected, surveillance soldiers would be able to mentally detect threats before they are even aware of them and intercept an attack.

“In the future, there may come a time when brains are networked and people can communicate without talking or writing,” says DARPA's Gill Pratt.

There are also those who take a more critical view of BMI's military applications. Just as with artificial intelligence and robotics, they believe that using this technology to inflict damage on humans on the battlefield raises ethical questions. Some researchers assert that it should be limited to peaceful usage, such as aiding the disabled.

(This article was written by Hitoki Nakagawa of The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE and Akiko Okazaki, The Asahi Shimbun staff writer.)

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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Inauguration of Beira Rio Soccer Stadium in Porto Alegre Brazil on April 5 for the FIFA World Cup 2014. (AP Photo)

Inauguration of Beira Rio Soccer Stadium in Porto Alegre Brazil on April 5 for the FIFA World Cup 2014. (AP Photo)

  • Inauguration of Beira Rio Soccer Stadium in Porto Alegre Brazil on April 5 for the FIFA World Cup 2014. (AP Photo)

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