Researchers have accomplished a groundbreaking new technological feat by developing the first-ever successful mind-controlled robotic arm exhibiting the ability to continuously track and follow a computer cursor controlled by one's thoughts.
Being able to non-invasively control robotic devices using only thoughts will have broad applications, in particular benefiting the lives of paralyzed patients and those with movement disorders.
The team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in collaboration with the University of Minnesota made their breakthrough using a noninvasive brain-computer interface (BCI).
BCIs have been shown to achieve good performance for controlling robotic devices using only the signals sensed from brain implants. When robotic devices can be controlled with high precision, they can be used to complete a variety of daily tasks. Until now, however, BCIs that have been successful in controlling robotic arms have used only invasive brain implants. These implants require a substantial amount of medical and surgical expertise to correctly install and operate, not to mention cost and potential risks to subjects, and as such, their use has been limited to just a few clinical cases.
A grand challenge in BCI research is to develop less invasive or even totally noninvasive technology that would allow paralyzed patients to control their environment or robotic limbs using their own "thoughts." Such noninvasive BCI technology, if successful, would bring such much needed technology to numerous patients and even potentially to the general population.
However, BCIs that use noninvasive external sensing, rather than brain implants, receive "dirtier" lower-resolution signals, leading to less precise control. Thus, when using only the brain to control a robotic arm, a noninvasive BCI hadn't been able to stand up to using implanted devices. Despite this, BCI researchers forged ahead, their eye on the prize of a less- or non-invasive technology that could help patients everywhere on a daily basis—until they achieved a breakthrough.
Bin He, Trustee Professor and Department Head of Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, is achieving the ultimate goal, one key discovery at a time.