Of Cyborg Monkeys and New Hope for Amputees

 

The innovative breeze of 2013 carries a particularly interesting development in the field of Neuroscience.

A joint venture funded by DARPA, composed of a group of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, revealed promising results in a recent study when monkeys were successful in moving a robotic arm using solely the power of their mind.

The practical application and climax of this study, as if it weren’t exciting enough already, finally arrived this January, when a woman was able to operate an artificial arm in a wide range of angles using her brain alone.

Related Article: Robotic Legs Controlled by Your Brain

For the past 11 years researchers have been conducting a series of experiments involving the motor-cortex, a part of the brain which facilitates movement. A tiny electrode array was implanted in the motor cortices of monkeys, enabling the scientists to read neural activity in the form of electrical spikes. Using a model based approach, the scientists were able to calculate the desired instantaneous hand and arm direction based on the activity of a few hundred neurons.

Reading brain-activity enabled the scientists to accurately move the artificial limb in the correct direction and angle, exactly the way the brain normally signals a healthy flesh and blood arm. In this way they trained the monkeys to move the arms through biofeedback.

Related Article: Robotic Sense and Feel

The monkeys were chosen as test subjects due to their similar brain structure to humans. However, it can’t be helped but to wonder: What is the secret for convincing a monkey to operate a robotic arm? The answer is simple: Marshmallows.

By hanging the treat just out of the monkey’s reach, far enough so that they would need to use the robotic arm to reach it, scientists were able to “train” the monkeys in moving the robotic arm in a space and they were able to teach the monkeys to grip their treat.

The next question that comes to mind is how many monkey-arms were removed due to the experiment? Animal rights fighters – rest assured; No monkeys were hurt in the process.

Related Article: Bionic Hand That Can Feel

After a decade of data-mining, the scientists are ready to implant a brain computer interface (BCI), an electrode array, in 53 year old Jan Scheuermann who suffers from quadriplegia; completely paralyzed from the neck down. The outcome of a not-so-simple surgery was optimistic news to all.

For many amputees, lacking an arm does not necessarily mean the brain is damaged as well. The successful experiment described above makes it very easy for a person to control a prosthetic arm, as all that needs to be done is  to ‘think’ which way the arm should move, much in the same way you are operating the arm you are using to scroll down and read this article.

Jan’s reports of headaches quickly disappeared, and no sooner did she prove to be able to feed herself, and even high-five Professor Andrew B. Schwartz, a senior figure in the research. According to Jan, feeding herself was:

One small nibble for a woman, one giant bite for BCI.

While the results of the research are certainly a breakthrough, leaving neuroscientists to fantasize about a world of possibilities opening up, major flaws cannot be ignored.

Implanting the electrode array requires invasive surgery, involving a temporary removal of part of the skull. The degree of control created by the invasive BCI (Brain Computer Interface) is limited by the number of neurons recorded, currently at a few hundred. Non-invasive methods of reading brain signals, such as EEG, offer a much lower information rate and require much more training.

Another flaw that is evident by observing Ms. Scheuermann’s arm movement is a poor eye-arm coordination. Neuroscientists are still looking for a reasonable explanation for Ms. Scheuermann inability to catch a falling object while observing it. Curiously enough, she is able to do so when not looking directly at the object.

Regardless of those facts, the sweet taste of success should not be bittered: this is still the first time a human has been able to operate a robotic arm in so many degrees of freedom, using only the power of the mind.

So what’s next? Killer-coding-ninja monkeys using telepathy? Anyone?

Sources:

NYTimes: Monkeys Think, Moving Artificial Arm as Own

Lancet: Nueroprosthetic Control by Individual with Tetraplegia 

Invasive BCI UPMC: Woman with Quadraplegia Feeds Herself

Nature: Cortical Control of a Prosthetic Arm for Self-Feeding

Killer Coding Ninja Monkeys

 

Wondergressive: The Singularity is Nigh Upon Us

Wondergressive: Robotic Sense and Feel

Wondergressive: Bionic Hand That Can Feel

Wondergressive: Robotic Legs Controlled by Your Brain

Robotic Sense and Feel

As you may have already noticed, us writers of Wondergressive are obsessed with robots, and when new news of robotic improvements surface, you better believe that we are reading about those new developments with both vigor and ecstasy. Most of the time.

Anyway, there was early talk of a bionic hand that can feel and transmit the sense of touch to the user. It is being developed later this year so it seems the technology is finally surfacing! Amazingly, the bionic hand is getting an additional upgrade: it will soon be able to dig in your pocket (get your mind out of the gutter) to find the right amount of change needed for the toll booth you are sitting at. Soon, very soon.

Researchers of the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Institute of Technology have created and successfully used a robotic arm which identifies items based on how each object feels. This new robot can maneuver around an area to reach a certain goal; even when lightly coming in contact with structures or objects the robot simply redirects its movement to get to the goal. The idea is to allow the robot to move without too much force when coming in contact with humans at a workplace, or when searching for an item that is out of the robot’s viewpoint. In this way, the robot does not have to be completely careful and can still gently come in contact with objects. Without damaging anything, it can then continue its work by redirecting its movements.

With this new robotic arm, robots could potentially be used to assist the elderly and handicapped in daily routines. Or what about those dangerous and sensitive rescue missions that need delicate care and specific precautions? Robots everywhere!

The best part? The researchers have made the robot’s “feel” skin as well as the robot’s software open source and readily available for all others working on and interested in robotics.

So why not move forward with this technology to better our lives? Why not find ways to better our AI counterparts? Why not become cyborgs that don’t feel emotion, are as strong as Metallo with evil intent, and (matrix spoiler) enslave our fellow human breatherin after a grueling war of humans and AI where the sun is blotted out in order to stop the machines from getting energy from the sun but it backfires and we humans lose the war only to become the machines’ new source of energy? Okay maybe not any of that cyborg spiel but instead the creation of a real bicentennial man.

As before and always thereafter, the singularity is nigh upon us!

 

 

Research:

Reaching in clutter with whole arm tactile sensing

Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech

Wondergressive: Bionic Hand That Can Feel

Wondergressive: The Singularity is Nigh Upon Us

Wondergressive: Kid Allergic to Everything Attends School

Wondergressive: Cyborg Lobsters Power a Digital Watch

Wikipedia: Metallo

Bicentennial Man

Bionic Hand That Can Feel

 

 

In 2006 the first bionic arm, a robotic arm controlled by the amputee’s brain, was successfully connected to a woman,  giving her a limb she could once again engage the world with. The only disadvantage of the arm was that she was still unable to feel, unable to tell that there was an arm that her mind was moving in the first place.  Now, the world of robotics is changing once again.

Later this year, the first bionic hand that can feel and transmit that sense of touch to the amputee will be connected to a young man’s arm in Rome. This is an absolute breakthrough in science, signaling that the singularity is closer than we’d imagined.

The hand will be attached directly to the nervous system, making the bionic hand a true extension of the man’s body and subsequently fostering an additional troop into the global cyborg army. No kidding, there is even a foundation dedicated to turning people into cyborgs, and promotion cybernetic rights.

The new bionic hand will

allow the man to control the hand by his thoughts, as well as receiving sensory signals to his brain from the hand’s sensors. It will effectively provide a fast, bidirectional flow of information between the man’s nervous system and the prosthetic hand.

Earlier models of the bionic hand provided very limited sensation, whereas the new model provides a range of sensations to allow the amputee to recognize differences in touch.

The idea would be that it could deliver two or more sensations. You could have a pinch and receive information from three fingers, or feel movement in the hand and wrist. We have refined the interface [connecting the hand to the patient], so we hope to see much more detailed movement and control of the hand.

This is obviously only the beginning, so there is no telling what further advancements into bionics and cybernetics will bring.

No more days of hook hands and dead weight.  This hand will likely one day be just as functional as a real limb with the added benefit of knowing the difference between a lover’s caress and the crushing force of a Buick parked on top of it. It might even eventually have the capability for heat seeking missiles that can be installed into the fingertips that reward the amputee with pleasure when they launch.  Sounds far-fetched, but as usual, you know the military will get this first.

Will this technology, paired with an artificial nervous system, eventually be implemented into robotics, enabling our future overlords to feel the world just like us? It’s a slippery slope, that’s for sure.

For more information regarding how technology has altered and/or improved biology follow the links below.

 

 

Sources:

Bionics

Washington Post: First Bionic Arm

The Independent: First Bionic Hand

Wondergressive: The Singularity is Night Upon Us

Cyborg

Cyborg Foundation

 

Additional Resources:

Wondergressive: First True Cybernetic Tissue Created

Wondergressive: Robotic Legs Controlled by Your Brain

Wondergressive: Electronic Brain Implant Increases Intelligence 

Wondergressive: Implantable Telescope Restores Vision

Wondergressive: Kid Allergic to Everything Goes to School as a Robot