Disabled Patients Mind-Meld With Robots

They’re not quite psychic yet, but machines are getting better at reading your mind. Researchers have invented a new, noninvasive method for recording patterns of brain activity and using them to steer a robot. Scientists hope the technology will give “locked in” patients—those too disabled to communicate with the outside world—the ability to interact with others and even give the illusion of being physically present, or “telepresent,” with friends and family.

Previous brain-machine interface systems have made it possible for people to control robots, cursors, or prosthetics with conscious thought, but they often take a lot of effort and concentration, says José del R. Millán, a biomedical engineer at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, who develops brain-machine interface systems that don’t need to be implanted into the brain. Millán’s goal is to make control as easy as driving a car on a highway. A partially autonomous robot would allow a user to stop concentrating on tasks that he or she would normally do subconsciously, such as following a person or avoiding running into walls. But if the robot encounters an unexpected event and needs to make a split-second decision, the user’s thoughts can override the robot’s artificial intelligence.

To test their technology, Millán and colleagues created a telepresent robot by modifying a commercially available bot called Robotino. The robot looks a bit like a platform on three wheels, and it can avoid obstacles on its own using infrared sensors. On top of the robot, the researchers placed a laptop running Skype, a voice and video Internet chat system, over a wireless Internet connection. This allowed the human controller to see where the robot was going, and, because the laptop also showed a video of the user, it allowed others to interact with the user as though the user were actually there. The user also wore a cap of tiny electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes, which measured his or her brain activity. This system translates the EEG signals into navigation instructions and transmits them in real time to the robot.

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