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Early testing of robot control via thought succeeds.
If you’ve seen the film Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, at some point during the movie you may have considered whether you would roam the world vicariously through a humanoid avatar were it possible.
Well, it’s time to reconsider the question as an attainable possibility.
Earlier this year, a team of researchers in the U.S. presented a brain-computer-interface (BCI) that allowed people to control a humanoid robot (Li, et al, 2012). How? By imagining the robot walking. The result? First steps on a new frontier. (OR “One small step for bot, one giant leap for mankind.”)
The purpose of the research is the development of a model linking human perception with cognition in order to improve the efficacy of automated systems, such as those used in modern aircraft.
An electroencephalograph (EEG) was used to detect neural activity while human subjects imagined the robot performing each of three walking tasks, namely walking forward, turning left and turning right.
After experimentation, the system effectively distinguished mental activity for different the walking tasks and this information was then used to activate corresponding robot walking behaviours.
Neural signals were recorded, filtered and categorised according to target robot behaviours. The researchers noted significant individual variations in neural activity among participants despite imagining the same walking behaviours. Due to this variation, the system required training for individual neural activities.
While acknowledging the challenges associated with identifying particular mental activities, the team plans to refine signal processing in future tests by using a virtual environment to support user concentration. The researchers say their next step is to explore more complex task control such as robot arm and head movement.
The potential applications of BCI’s as a future control medium are diverse, to say the very least. The research reported here indicates that using thought to control technology is feasible, if only to a limited extent. Clifton Fadium described science fiction as the “archaeology of the future.” Technology seems bent on making that dig-site a sandpit.