Mind-controlled robots no longer science fiction

Nov 29, 2013

Researchers at the University at Buffalo are studying how mind-controlled robots can be utilized in the manufacturing sector. The team is also working to make the technology more affordable for companies.

UB graduate student Habib Mohd Younus is imagining a wood peg being placed in a round hole. He focuses on getting the mind-controlled robot in front of him to do exactly what he is thinking.

“When I think ‘push’ you actually see it’s being pushed back. When I want to rotate it clockwise, I’m thinking it’s rotating, so it rotates,” said Younus.

Younus says the key to getting the robotic arm to do what you want it to is to clear your mind.

“If your mind is filled with something else I don’t think you will be able to control the robot properly,” said Younus.

Researchers across the world are working on various versions of Brain Computer Interface, or BCI, devices, but UB Professor Thenkurussi Kesavadas says those systems are controlled by sensors surgically inserted into the brain.

“So what we are trying to do is use surface sensors to collect data from the brain while you’re thinking of something or imagining things in your mind, and using that as an end put to make the robot drive and do things,” said Kesavadas.

The BCI program the team has been researching uses a headset outfitted with 14 sensors, a computer program, and the robotic arm. Kesavadas, who is spearheading the project, says if they can perfect the system, it will be affordable option for advanced manufacturing companies to enhance production.

“Maybe the robot is working in an environment which is unsafe for human beings, say in space, for instance. Maybe a better way to control the robot is having the person who’s trained to imagine the actions as opposed to programming the robot to do things,” said Kesavadas.

The Brain Computer Interface the UB team is working on would also be a less invasive choice for people who are paralyzed or disabled. Kesavadas says mind-controlled robots are not meant to eliminate jobs.

“I think the whole idea of BCI is not to replace human beings, but to use the human being’s ability to make wise decisions. This would be something which will make the life of human beings easier or maybe make the environment more efficient,” said Kesavadas.

Kesavades says the research team’s next order of business is to get the BCI to function when people’s minds are not clear, like when multitasking in the workplace.