Noofa Hannan, Howl Staff
If you read Matilda as a kid, you must’ve been fascinated by her telekinetic powers – the ability to control objects with thought alone. Our future generations though, are not going to be as enchanted. Scientists at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have recently demonstrated how a partially paralyzed person can control a robot with their mind.
The United States and Germany have conducted similar experiments in the past, but they mainly involved able-bodied subjects. Swiss scientists, on the other hand, performed their experiment on Mark-Andre Duc, a partial quadriplegic.
Duc was fitted with a simple head cap to record the electrical signals emitted by his brain. When he imagined raising his left or right hand, the instructions were first sent to a laptop for decoding and then transmitted to a robot in the lab. Duc said that while it was easy to control the robot on a good day, he found it hard when he was in pain.
Jose Millan, the head researcher of the Swiss team, explained that background “noise” such as that caused by pain has presented a major hurdle in the working of the brain-computer interface ever since it was first tested on humans. A paralyzed person would have to focus their entire energy to direct the robot. “Sooner or later your attention will drop and this will degrade the signal,” said Millan.
Millan’s team worked around this problem by employing a system similar to the human subconscious. In essence, they eased the control process by ensuring that the computer would continue executing the command signal unless a stop signal was received or the robot faced an obstacle.
Rajesh Rao, an associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who has worked on similar systems with able-bodied subjects, said Millan’s team had marked an advance in the field, “[e]specially if the system can be used by the paraplegic person outside the laboratory,” he said.