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New Mind-Controlled Robot Arm Needs No Brain Implant

The thought-controlled device could help people with movement disorders control devices without the costs and risks of surgery

A new thought-controlled robotic arm has been shown to continuously track and follow a computer cursor:

Being able to noninvasively control robotic devices using only thoughts will have broad applications, in particular benefiting the lives of paralyzed patients and those with movement disorders.

Emily Durham, “First-ever noninvasive mind-controlled robotic arm ” at Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering

While implants have been shown to help paralysis suffers control robotic devices, the risks and costs of surgery have limited their use to a few clinical cases.

This newer system “using only thoughts” is not free of bugs:

However, BCIs that use noninvasive external sensing, rather than brain implants, receive “dirtier” signals, leading to lower resolution and less precise control. Thus, when using only the brain to control a robotic arm, a noninvasive BCI doesn’t stand up to using implanted devices.

Emily Durham, “First-ever noninvasive mind-controlled robotic arm ” at Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering

The new technique, however, reduces the problem with signal quality:

The CMU and University of Minnesota research team’s breakthrough is to develop a system that can deal with the lower signal quality that comes from using sensors that are used outside of the body, applied to the skin instead. They were able to employ a combination of new sensing and machine learning technologies to grab signals from the user that are from deep within the brain, but without the kind of “noise” that typically comes with noninvasive techniques.

Darrell Etherington, “Researchers create first mind-controlled robot arm that works well without surgery” at TechCrunch

The thoughts-only technique has been successful enough that clinical trials are planned for the near future:

The paper, “Noninvasive neuroimaging enhances continuous neural tracking for robotic device control,” shows that the team’s unique approach to solving this problem not enhanced BCI learning by nearly 60% for traditional center-out tasks, it also enhanced continuous tracking of a computer cursor by over 500%.

The technology also has applications that could help a variety of people, by offering safe, noninvasive “mind control” of devices that can allow people to interact with and control their environments. The technology has, to date, been tested in 68 able-bodied human subjects (up to 10 sessions for each subject), including virtual device control and controlling of a robotic arm for continuous pursuit.

Carnegie Mellon University, “First-ever successful mind-controlled robotic arm without brain implants” at TechXplore

Here’s the paper. B.J. Edelman el al., “Noninvasive neuroimaging enhances continuous neural tracking for robotic device control,” Science Robotics (2019). robotics.sciencemag.org/lookup … /scirobotics.aaw6844 (public access)

People who suffer from movement disorders may be poor risks for invasive surgery so a new approach is likely welcome.

Beyond that, such research raises a philosophical question: If the mind is an illusion, as many thinkers claim, how can it act directly on physical things external to the body, by the force of decision-making alone? Free will debaters, take note of thoughts-only robotics.


See also: Non-invasive healing for the wounded brain One method does not involve invasive surgery but rather stimulating the tongue

Our amazing neuroplasticity: Jonathan Sackier is a pioneer in non-invasive techniques for speeding the healing of traumatic brain injuries

and

The placebo effect is real, not a trick But the fact that the mind acts on the body troubles materialists. Such facts, they say, require revision


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New Mind-Controlled Robot Arm Needs No Brain Implant