An international research team led by Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis has developed a mind-controlled robotic suit that makes it possible for paralyzed people to walk again. And Nicolelis plans to showcase the telekinetic prosthetic in his home country this summer at the 2014 World Cup.
If all goes according to plan, the first kick of the tournament will be shot by a quadriplegic teen wearing the thought-powered exoskeleton. It's an ambitious goal, and the advances in neuroscience, brain-machine interfacing, and robotics behind it are fascinating.
The suit is being developed by the Walk Again Project out of Duke University, first reported by the Washington Post in May and resurfaced this week by the New Scientist ahead of this year’s World Cup. Electrodes worn on the skull or a chip implanted in the brain detect brain waves and wirelessly send the signals to a computer. The machine then converts the thoughts into commands that move the wearable, battery-powered mechanic suit.
The more neurons connected to the brain-machine interface, the more accurate the movement. What's really fascinating, researchers found that over time the neurons learned how to more effectively communicate with the computer's algorithm. Essentially, the machine became an extension of the person's mind.
When the team ran experiments with rats and monkeys, the animals had tiny microwire sensors implanted in the brain. But the teenager chosen to kick off the World Cup this summer will wear a cap fitted with sensors, which is considered the safer option.
To make the kick feel as natural as possible, the robotic suit will also have infrared sensors on it that pick up on the force of the ball and the person's feet on the ground, and relay that feeling back to the wearer through a visual display or vibrating motor.
This certainly isn't the first mind-controlled prosthetic, or the first one capable of "feeling." Scientists have created a neuroprosthesis that imitates a tactile sensation by electrically stimulating the part of brain that creates the sense of touch. Other researchers wired a robotic leg directly into the nervous system, which sent muscle signals back to the brain that used them to control the prosthetic limb.
In the not-too-distant future, mind-reading prosthetics could work as a full information loop—thoughts control the bionic body, which is connected to nerves that directly send touch signals back to the brain and move the device accordingly. It's pretty crazy stuff, and Nicolelis hopes it could one day make the wheelchair obsolete. In the meantime, soccer fans watching the ceremonial kick off this June could catch a glimpse of the future in action.