In the 2009 Bruce Willis thriller Surrogates, people control artificial avatars while securely ensconced in the safety of their own homes. Scientists have just made that fiction a little bit more real, as a paper published today in Nature Neuroscience makes clear.
Researchers led by Krishna Shenoy, a professor of electrical engineering, bioengineering, and neurobiology at Stanford, doubled the efficiency of implanted neural prosthetics to allow brains to control external systems, simply via thought.
In other words, moving things with your mind.
But it’s no Jedi mind trick, and it doesn’t even involve humans at this point, although human brain sensors that drive robotic limbs have been built. Rather, the experiments involved rhesus monkeys with sensors embedded in their skulls.
What makes it possible is that in both monkey and humans, neurons fire in recognizable patterns when we want to move our hands, feet, a robotic arm, or a cursor on a computer screen. By intercepting and decoding those signals, scientists have been able to allow people to control computerized systems simply by thinking.
The primary use case, of course, is people who are paralyzed or who have lost a limb. Eventually, researchers believe they will be able to give disabled veterans or paraplegics the ability to control powered electronic prostheses … hopefully returning their ability to grasp, move, walk, and control their world.
Imagine an Oscar Pistorius, in the next summer Olympics, with smart legs and feet that move naturally, controlled by his brain in exactly the same way as his hands and eyes always have been.
The massive improvement in Shenoy’s work, according to Science Daily, is due to a new algorithm, called ReFIT, that does a better job of interpreting neural signals — twice as good as previous attempts — and a focus on groups on neurons that fire when, for instance, the brain is attempting to signal a limb to move, rather than just single neurons.
ReFIT achieves 75-85 percent of the speed of actual arms, which makes “neuroprosthetic” devices increasingly viable, and learns over time from users’ corrections to get better, quicker.
Which is great news for those who need prosthetics in the future, and one step closer to mind-controlled robots.