Brain scanner lets man control robot thousands of kilometres away

Scientists have made a robot move on a human’s behalf by monitoring thoughts about movement.

The man-machine link joined a man in a brain scanner in Israel and a robot wandering a laboratory in France, according to New Scientist.

More interestingly is that the person controlling the robot could also see through the eyes of his electronic surrogate.

Now, the researchers are working on ways to make the man-machine link more sensitive and to let people speak via the robot, the BBC reported.

The research project connected a robot to a man having his brain scanned using fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). This monitors blood flowing through the brain and can spot when areas associated with certain actions, such as movement, are in use.

Using brain scanners is a step beyond current efforts to link up men and machines. Much recent work involved teleoperated robots in which humans manipulate controls, such as joysticks, to make a robot move.

By contrast, the scanning approach is more subtle and attempts to fool the human subject into thinking that they are embodied in the robot.

Researchers linked up student Tirosh Shapira who was in a lab at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, with a small two-legged robot thousands of kilometres away at Beziers Technology Institute in France.

Prior to connecting the two, researchers made Shapira think about different sorts of movements and developed software that could quickly spot his intention.

The result, reported the magazine, was that he could control the robot in almost real time.

The illusion of embodiment was tested by surprising Shapira with a mirror so he could see his robot self – a test that convinced him he was present in the French lab.

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The next step for the research is to refine it to use a different type of scanning that can work using a skull cap rather than an fMRI machine that a person has to lie in. The robot used to represent a human is to be upgraded to a version that has a similar stature and gait to a real person.

The research is part of an international project called Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment that aims to refine ways to link people and surrogates in both virtual environments and the real world.

Work is being done on medical applications of the technology but the researchers warned that it was a long way from being able to help anyone yet.

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