Monday, March 4, 2013

A wireless chip to control robot limbs with the mind

Using your thoughts to control robot arms and robot legs are the next big thing currently in development for paraplegics. Proof of concepts have already shown that it is possible to read a person's thoughts and translate that to movement. For example, clinical studies with 'brain chips' show that we can translate thoughts to movement of robot arms, or robot legs, and even the fine movements of the finger can be simulated. Downside is that people have to be hooked up to computers in order to derive one's thoughts from the brain, but scientists have now created a chip that transmits brain activity wirelessly, which means thoughts can be read with no strings attached.

Researchers from the Brown University developed the brain recording device, which basically functions quite similar to existing variants that do require a wire. It records brain activity in certain regions by using electrodes which convert the readings into a digital signal. The chip built by Brown University also contains hardware to convert the incoming signal into a wirelessly transmittable data package that is broadcasted similar to an ordinary Wi-Fi connection, with a speed of 24Mbps. Data is gathered by 100 electrodes that measure the electrical activity in the brain area where the device is implanted. All hardware is encased in a titanium package.

Obviously, one cannot just start experiments in humans; first it is necessary to establish safety in an animal model. Brown University scientists tried their wireless chip in both pigs and monkeys, and have so far tested it for over 16 months. So far, everything seems to be functioning well, which is promising for any future clinical trials involving human patients. Experiments revealed that the device is capable of recording brain activity in the region where it is implanted and that these signals can be digitized into something that we can understand.

Chips that monitor brain activity and translate that into digital signals in order to control robot limbs are getting more and more common, although none of them are already being used on a large scale. Being able to transmit the required signals wirelessly will make things a lot easier. And by no longer needing a physical connection, it may also be possible to think of other practical uses than just robot limbs for paraplegics. Potentially all devices that are capable of receiving wireless signals could be controlled by the brain. In addition, collecting brain data wirelessly may help us learn more about how our grey matter works.

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