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Professor José Millán’s Demonstration of Mind-Controlled Robot for Paraplegics

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José del R. Millán, a professor at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne has unveiled a robot that can be controlled by the brain waves of a paraplegic person wearing an electrode-fitted cap. A paralysed man at a hospital in the town of Sion demonstrated the device, sending a mental command to a computer in his room, which transmitted it to another computer that moved a small robot 60 kilometres (37 miles) away in Lausanne.

The system was developed by Professor José Millán who should not be unknown to our fellow readers. Millán specialises in non-invasive interfaces between machines and the brain, and he had been involved in projects such as the multitasking BCI or developing BCI for Nissan cars to read the driver’s mind.

The same technology can be used to drive a wheelchair, Millan said. “Once the movement has begun, the brain can relax, otherwise the person would soon be exhausted,” he said. But the technology has its limits, he added. The brain signals can be scrambled if too many people are gathered around a wheelchair, for example.

While the human brain is perfectly capable of performing several tasks at once, a paralyzed person would have to focus the entire time they are directing the device.

“Sooner or later your attention will drop and this will degrade the signal,” Millan said.

To get around this problem, his team decided to program the computer that decodes the signal so that it works in a similar way to the brain’s subconscious. Once a command such as ‘walk forward’ has been sent, the computer will execute it until it receives a command to stop or the robot encounters an obstacle.

Professor José del R. Millán, Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne

The robot itself is an advance on a previous project that let patients control an electric wheelchair. By using a robot complete with a camera and screen, users can extend their virtual presence to places that are arduous to reach with a wheelchair, such as an art gallery or a wedding abroad.

The robot itself is an advance on a previous project that let patients control an electric wheelchair. By using a robot complete with a camera and screen, users can extend their virtual presence to places that are arduous to reach with a wheelchair, such as an art gallery or a wedding abroad.

Rajesh Rao, an associate professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, who has tested similar systems with able-bodied subjects, said the Lausanne team’s research appeared to mark an advance in the field.

“Especially if the system can be used by the paraplegic person outside the laboratory,” he said in an email.

Millan said that although the device has already been tested at patients’ homes, it isn’t as easy to use as some commercially available gadgets that employ brain signals to control simple toys, such Mattel’s popular MindFlex headset.

“But this will come in a matter of years,” Millan said.

A spectator moves out of the way as Mark-Andre Duc, seen on the computer screen, directs a robot at Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.
A spectator moves out of the way as Mark-Andre Duc, seen on the computer screen, directs a robot at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.
A scientist waves to Mark-Andre Duc, a partially tetraplegic patient, at Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, Tuesday, April 24, 2012.  Read more: http://www.newstimes.com/business/article/Swiss-scientists-demonstrate-mind-controlled-robot-3505194.php#ixzz1t5eRWyy3
A scientist waves to Mark-Andre Duc, a partially tetraplegic patient, at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, Tuesday, April 24, 2012.