The High Tech Society

This Mind Controlled Robotic Arm Is Getting Better All the Time


This Mind Controlled Robotic Arm Is Getting Better All the Time

In December of 2012, the world was first introduced to Jan Scheuerman, a quadriplegic woman who volunteered to do tests with a new robotic arm. Her condition, which leaves her paralyzed from the neck down, means that she hasn’t been able to use her hands or her feet since 2004, but the project which she volunteered for aims to give those functions back to her. The study in robotics utilizes brain signals to control the machinery. Essentially, the robotic arm is mind controlled, making it the perfect tool for paraplegics, quadriplegics, and quite literally anyone in need of an extra arm. But how does it work?

First This Video

In 2012, the video of Jan using the robotic arm to pick up a bar of chocolate and feed it to herself went viral. What most don’t know about it, is that the painstaking bite of chocolate was achieved after nearly a year of practice, research, and improving of the arm.

Jan Scheueman Robotic Arm

Jan Scheuerman

In the video, Scheuerman uses her thoughts to control the robotic arm to first take the bar of chocolate offered to her, close the hand around the chocolate, bend the elbow, and maneuver it to her mouth where she takes a bite. While a simple maneuver, it has quite literally never been done before.

How Does it Work?

Jan Scheueman Robotic Arm

Getting the robotic arm to work via ‘mind control’ was a multi-step process that involves a couple of things most people would rather avoid. The first step was actually scanning the brain using functional magnetic resonance to find the active areas of the brain when Jan was asked to think about and to try moving her arm. This essentially creates a ‘map’ that the computer can use to configure certain electrical responses with activity. The second step was implanting electrodes in Jan Scheueman’s head, these are necessary for picking up the electrical signals and brain activity to translate it to the arm. They literally connect Jan’s brain to a computer, allowing the electrical impulses to be read, processed by the software developed for the purpose, and translated to the robot. While not perfect, the video proves that it’s definitely on its way to working.

Jan Scheueman Robotic Arm

Because most of the brain is controlled by electronic impulses, the technology is quite similar to EEG (Electroencephalography) and MEG (Magnetoencephalography), which are both used to monitor and create reactions based on electric signals and pulses. In fact, there are a number of different but less functional technologies that are coming out now utilizing these technologies.

What It Means for The Future

The project, which is being undertaken by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UMPC is one of the first projects to ever successfully pull off a brain computer interface (BCI). Most importantly, the project was not dumped after Jan’s success went viral, but is instead still in research. Her arm is still being worked on and improved, with the hope of creating a viable BCI technology that works, operates, and functions with sufficient reliability to perform in the real world.

Jan Scheueman Robotic Arm

Another patient using the robotic arm to give a high-five

While today the technology is large, clunky, slow, and impossible to take out and about, it is important to keep in mind that the computer used to send men to the Moon in 1963 was less advanced than a modern pocket calculator. While we might not see huge advances in the field of BCI within the next five to ten years, it will definitely be available within our lifetime.