22 August 2013

Real-life Avatar: The first mind-controlled robot surrogate

An Israeli student has become the first person to meld his mind and movements with a robot surrogate, or avatar. Situated inside an fMRI scanner in Israel, Tirosh Shapira has controlled a humanoid robot some 2000 kilometers (1250 miles) away, at the B├ęziers Technology Institute in France, using just his mind.

The fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) reads his thoughts, a computer translates those thoughts into commands, and then those commands are sent across the internet to the robot in France. The system requires training: On its own, an fMRI can simply see the real-time blood flow in your brain (pictured below right). Training teaches the system that a particular “thought” (blood flow pattern) equates to a certain command. In this case, when Shapira thinks about moving forward or backward, the robot moves forward or backward; when Shapira thinks about moving one of his hands, the robot surrogate turns in that direction.

To complete the loop, the robot has a camera on its head, with the image being displayed in front of Shapira. Speaking to New Scientist, it sounds like Shapira really became one with the robot: “It was mind-blowing. I really felt like I was there, moving around,” he says. “At one point the connection failed. One of the researchers picked the robot up to see what the problem was and I was like, ‘Oi, put me down!’”

This isn’t particularly surprising, though: We humans are very, very good at integrating other objects into our mental model of ourselves (the rubber hand trick; video below), or filling other vessels with our persona (role-playing games, digital avatars in virtual worlds).

This area of research — robot surrogates — is of particular interest for two reasons: a) The military would love to send robots into battle, rather than soldiers, and b) Paralyzed, locked-in, and vegetative people could use robots to interact with the world, effectively replacing their damaged body with a shiny new robot. In recent years, lots of research has shown that many of these people still have perfectly functional brains — it’s just a matter of connecting them up to a working physical body.

Both the militaristic and medicinal applications will require a lot more research, though. In this case, an fMRI scanner (a huge and expensive piece of equipment) is used because it’s more accurate than an EEG — but moving forward, improved software might allow the use of an EEG, or perhaps head-mounted fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) could be used. On the robotics side of the equation, a lot of work is being done to create robots are remarkably human-like, such as Boston Dynamics’ Petman, Kawada Industries’ HRP-4, and Meka Robotics’ anime head (videos embedded below).

Who knows, in a few years, you might be able to slip a brain-computer interface over your head (or perhaps your Google Glass will have a built-in BCI?), lean back, and control a robot avatar that could be anywhere in the world — or galaxy. With enough sensory feedback (if something touches the robot, you should feel it too), you could travel the world every night after work — or, my personal favorite, engage in robot vs. robot deathmatches.


Post a Comment

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.


Copyright © 2015 Tracktec. All rights reserved.

Back to Top