José del R. Millán’s computer science lab in Switzerland has, over recent months, been the testing ground for an innovation that could potentially change the lives of thousands of people.
A small, round robot has been bumping its way through the offices. You could be forgiven for being unimpressed if you were to see the robot on its own, with no knowledge as to how it is being controlled. However, when you discover that the robot is being controlled by a paralyzed patient in a clinic over 60 miles away, everything changes.
How is this possible? Brain waves. The robot is being run by a unique interface between the brain and a machine, an experimental system of “shared control” developed by Millán which merges conscious thought and algorithms. This creates a kind of dialogue between the two, meaning that the software allows disabled patients to control devices with precision and, most importantly, with room for error.
Previously a robot would be unable to interpret any command other than “turn left,” “turn right,” or “do nothing”. These commands would create specific brain wave patterns, which would be read by a series of electrodes. This system required absolute focus on the necessary command, which led to users becoming mentally exhausted as they concentrated on whichever command they needed. As a result, the mind would sometimes wander, and controlling the machine became difficult.
The reason Millán’s system represents a breakthrough as that is interprets the intention of the user more readily, rather than being dependent on a specific instruction. Instead of falling over or going in the wrong direction, this system has the ability to weed out irrelevant and unrelated brain waves in order to determine what the user is trying to achieve.
This technology was announced in September at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and represents a potentially life-changing innovation for many disabled people. In particular, it will be of significant benefit to the many sufferers of locked-in syndrome. This specific type of paralysis leaves patients with only the ability to blink and is usually incurable; however, Millán’s research splits the cognitive workload between the patient and the machine and as a result allows the user to interact with the world in a way that would be impossible with even the current brain-machine interfaces.
Justin Sanchez, director of the Neuroprosthetics Research Group at the University of Miami, is also studying shared control. “The last 10 years have been like a proof of concept,” he said, adding: “the research is moving fast. Now there is a big push to get these devices to people who need them for everyday life.”
Though initially this technology will likely be used to help the disabled, there are countless potential applications for it in everyday life. This means that we may all, one day, have use for Millán’s software – and it may be sooner than you think. Millán and Nissan, the auto manufacturer, announced recently that they are working together on a shared-control car. This device would scan the brain and eyes of the driver, and interpret commands as necessary, even stepping in if the mind (and thus the car) began to wander.