For the first time, scientists have managed to use fMRI scans of a human to control the movements of a robot body. The link between man and machine allowed the researchers to control a robot in France from a brain scanner in Israel.
New Scientist reports the momentous achievement, which is the culmination of research that hopes to give people who are "locked in" the chance to interact with the world using a surrogate body.
To achieve the feat, a team of researchers first developed software systems that could interpret fMRI data — brain imaging which monitors blood flow and can spot when areas associated with certain actions are active — and control a virtual avatar. Over time, they worked out how to interpret the data and recognise when a participant was thinking about walking, turning, or other simple movements.
When that component was in place, the team started beaming the data via an internet connection to Béziers Technology Institute in France, where it was used to control a robot. The results are nothing short of amazing:
The set-up allowed [the participant] to control the robot in near real time with his thoughts, while a camera on the robot's head allowed him to see from the robot's perspective. When he thought of moving his left or right hand, the robot moved 30 degrees to the left or right. Imagining moving his legs made the robot walk forward.
There is, of course, some delay: the fMRI scanner first has to detect the neural activity, the software then has to translate it, and finally the robot act upon it. But that doesn't stop the experiment being successful. Tirosh Shapira, who was the man controlling the robot with his thoughts, was able to get the android to follow people around a room and walk towards specified objects. He even felt a deep sense of embodiment, too. He explains to New Scientist that "at one point the connection failed. One of the researchers picked the robot up to see what the problem was and I was like, 'Oi, put me down!'"
The research, though, is far from over. These first trials used a small robot: the next step is to replace the current surrogate with a bigger, more life-like humanoid. It'll probably be a while until you see such a thing walking down the street of course — and all sorts of ethical issues arise at that point — but it's a breakthrough that at least means it's possible. [New Scientist]
Image by EU VERE project, IDC, Weizmann Inst. of Science, CNRS