Apr 01 2009

Controlling Robots with the Mind

Honda announced recently that they have built a device that reads the electrical impulses and blood flow of a person’s brainenabling them to control a robot with their thoughts. Sounds cool – but actually I did not find this to be a significant breakthrough. Other research centers have already achieved similar goals – remember the monkey that learned to control a robot with his mind?

Honda claims that their innovation is in developing a device that is painless because is uses only surface sensory and not implanted wires – but New York researchers have already accomplished that goal too, several years ago.

So really, this is a non-story (Shhhh….don’t tell the press).

Honda is a leading developer of robotic technology. So I guess they command some attention whenever they show a robot doing something. It is also likely that because of their robotics expertise they will play a role in mind-controlled robots in the future. But we need to put this unwieldy and clumsy device into perspective.

Their “mind reader” can discern four states of the brain – when the subject thinks about raising their right arm, raising their left arm, running and eating.  This takes several hours of training with the subject. Honda showed a video of their Asimo robot lifing its right arm several seconds after a subject commanded it to with their thoughts. Honda says that their system is still too crude to give a live demonstration. Again – I’m not impressed. Not even ready for a live demonstration?

So they have crudely duplicated technology already developed years ago by other research centers. Sounds like they are fishing for investment money or PR. Eh – maybe I’m being too cynical.

News articles speculate about using this technology to one day drive a car with mental commands. There is nothing wrong with this speculation – but this is certainly not going to be an early application.

One thing to consider is that there is a certain neurological buffer between our intentions and our actions.  We have to physically move our arms to move the steering wheel. There is a threshold of intention that needs to be overcome. By operating the steering wheel directly with the mind (depending on the sophistication of the reading device and software) this buffer may be lost. Operation of the car may be at the whim of every stray thought or distraction.

For this reason operating equipment like a car will probably be a late application, only after the the technology is fairly mature. In fact, there may never be an advantage to bypassing the arms and controlling a vehicle with the mind. Unless there is a physical impairment, the arms work quite well. I file this under “cooking with a microwave” – just because we can do something in a new fancy way, does not make it better.

The real applications (like heating with a microwave) will likely not be realized until after experimentation with real-world use. Right now we can only speculate.

But having said that, my speculation is that this technology will be most useful for, and will be early adopted by, the physically impaired. If one cannot move their arms then such a device would be extremely useful. Right now crude devices can already be used to move a cursor around a computer screen.  Once you can operate a computer with your mind in sufficient detail – a world of communication and control opens up even to those completely paralyzed. Such applications are also more likely to attract research money. And – such devices to not have to be as portable for someone already confined to a large wheelchair or to a bed.

The real point of this news item is for Honda to announce to the world that they are now in this game. Sure – they overstated where they are in relation to other researchers, and were probably jumping the gun, having to rely upon a video rather than risk a live demonstration. But it seems they are poised to invest heavily in this technology, which means they may quickly become a real player.

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