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Therapist helping young man learning to walk again in rehabilitation
Therapist helping young man learning to walk again in rehabilitation

Why Robotics Offers Hope for Paraplegics

The breakthrough idea is that the human brain can process electronic signals from machines as well as signals from peripheral nerves

Neuroengineer Gordon Cheng compares technology that can help paraplegics to walk again to learning to drive a car:

The idea behind this is that the coupling between the brain and the machine should work in a way where the brain thinks of the machine as an extension of the body. Let’s take driving as an example. While driving a car, you don’t think about your moves, do you? But we still don’t know how this really works. My theory is that the brain somehow adapts to the car as if it is a part of the body. With this general idea in mind, it would be great to have an exoskeleton that would be embraced by the brain in the same way.

Technical University of Munich, “The Machine as Extension of the Body” at Neuroscience News (December 11, 2020)

The breakthrough idea is that the human brain can process electronic signals from machines as well as signals from peripheral nerves.

Cheng’s team at the Technical University of Munich admits that it is early days yet:

The exoskeleton that we were using for our research so far is actually just a big chunk of metal and thus rather cumbersome for the wearer. I want to develop a “soft” exoskeleton – something that you can just wear like a piece of clothing that can both sense the user’s movement intentions and provide instantaneous feedback. Integrating this with recent advances in brain-machine interfaces that allow real-time measurement of brain responses enables the seamless adaptation of such exoskeletons to the needs of individual users.

Technical University of Munich, “The Machine as Extension of the Body” at Neuroscience News (December 11, 2020) The paper requires a subscription.

Fully restored mobility is not yet feasible but consider this:

If you think all this is impossible, consider:

Prosthetic hand controlled by thoughts alone? It’s here. Decades ago, no one could control a prosthesis only by thought. And there is lots of room for the field to grow still.

and

High tech can help the blind see and amputees feel. It’s not a miracle; the human nervous system can work with electronic information.


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Why Robotics Offers Hope for Paraplegics