The Mind-Robot Connection
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The Mind-Robot Connection

A wife and mother of two, Jan Scheuermann, gets help these days from Hector — just simple things really, such as sorting and putting things away. Hector, hovering next to her, does her bidding — not by listening, but by reading her thoughts.

Hector, a nickname coined by Jan, is the most advanced robotic arm available today, and Jan, a decade-long quadriplegic, can once again feed herself a bite of chocolate. Unlike previous brain-computer interface robotic arms, where the user must think out each movement, Jan just has to think, for example, “put the ball in the box” and the arm executes, nearly simultaneously.

First, surgeons implanted in Jan’s brain two tiny electrode chips, each with dozens of hair-thin contacts. The electrodes picked up individual neurons’ impulses as Jan imagined moving her hand and arm in certain motions.

Then the software algorithm, which is key to this study’s success, matched the neurons’ firing patterns to certain movements. Researchers wrote the computer program based on years of studying how primates’ brains control hand movements. The result is an unprecedented algorithm that closely resembles our brain’s process as it controls the upper limbs.

So intuitive is the program that Jan began calling the robot, “her arm”. The arm is not physically attached to her, but to the computer which also has cables running to plugs on Jan’s head. Plus, everything is happening in a lab.

Even though Jan can’t take home the arm and it’s constantly being tweaked, this study moves the field a giant step ahead. Consider that less than a decade ago, the brain-computer interface merely allowed users to move cursors on a computer screen.