Scientists demo thought-controlled robots

[From PC Magazine]

Scientists Demo Thought-Controlled Robots

By Adario Strange
July 9, 2012

In the 2009 film Surrogates, based on the popular graphic novel, Bruce Willis is shown struggling in a world dominated by realistic robot avatars controlled by humans sitting comfortably in their homes. Often injured or somehow disfigured, opting to interact with the world from a distance, the people are shown seamlessly operating their metal doppelgangers via a brain link apparatus that goes mostly unexplained in the film.

Now, a team of researchers based in laboratories around the globe, have developed a system similar to the one depicted in the film, designed to assist the chronically bedridden and those suffering from paralysis.

The development represents the first time an fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine has been used to allow a person to control a robot’s movements simply by thinking of a command. By monitoring the brain’s blood flow, the fMRI can detect neural activity associated with various commands, such as movement. In a recent demonstration of the technology, the team had a human subject sitting in a lab in Israel control a small robot in another lab located in France.

The demo not only allowed the person to control the robot, but he was also able to see from the robot’s perspective via a small camera mounted on the robot’s head. This fMRI real-time link, along with the camera perspective, reportedly gave the subject the sense of actually being in the room in France.

The test subject, Tirosh Shapira, was enthusiastic about the out-of-body experience, telling NewScientist, “It was mind-blowing. I really felt like I was there, moving around… You need to concentrate, and you have to calculate a few steps in advance because there’s a small delay between thinking of a movement and it actually happening. But once you get used to it you feel like a puppet master.”

Although controlling robots using EEG (electroencephalogram) set-ups has been demonstrated in the past, experts believe the fMRI technique may afford more precise command of a robot avatar. In future iterations of the fMRI system, the researchers hope to allow for more finely tuned controls in which the human subject could actually regulate the speed and dexterity of a robot’s individual finger movements.

The consortium, operating under the collective name VERE (Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-embodiment project), includes scientists from Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, the U.K., Portugal, and Israel. The most recent [2:09 minute] demonstration video shows Shapira controlling a tiny humanoid robot roughly two-feet tall, but the group hopes to conduct future tests with the HRP4 robot ([4:36 minute] video [here]), a human-sized robot that would give the human operator an even greater sense of experiencing the world through a robot’s body.


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