Who wouldn’t want to be able to do multiple things at the same time? Writing on the computer whilst drinking a cup of coffee or cooking whilst knitting a scarf for example. Impossible you say? For scientists at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR) in Kyoto, it’s not impossible, but robotic.
Shuichi Nishio and Christian I. Penaloza, researchers at the ATR have actually created a new robotic arm that you can control with your mind. All the user has to do is think of two actions simultaneously, one they want to do themselves and the other that will be directed to the robotic arm. The robot arm is then able to determine which action it has to do and acts accordingly. So how does it work? With a brain-computer interface (BCI).
This interface system is responsible for detecting brain waves in a non-intrusive way (not requiring changes or modifications on the body). To do this, the subject wears an electroencephalogram helmet (EEG) that has small electrodes that rest against the skin of the head. These electrodes then pick up on the electronic brain activity, which are sent to the BCI where an algorithm will interpret them and change them into a command for the robotic arm.
A practical and cognitive advantage
In order to test this system, researchers recruited 15 healthy volunteers and asked them to roll a ball around on a wooden board whilst they visualized the robotic arm reaching for a bottle. For three thirds of the tests, the robotic arm was able to complete the task successfully.
It is very interesting to see that some subjects were more adept at this exercise than others. According to Christian I. Penaloza, a clear distinction is noticeable, with the ‘talented’ subjects on one hand who were successful 85% of the time, and the less adept subjects who could only successfully multitask with the robotic arm 52% of the time. According to the researcher, these results don’t necessarily mean that those who weren’t as successful during the tests couldn’t control the arm, but probably just weren’t as good at multitasking as those who were better at it.
This project is a huge step forward for science and is very promising. ‘Being able to perform more than one task at the same time tends to reflect a global ability to shift your attention from one action to another. If we can get people to be able to multitask through a brain-computer interface, we could potentially improve these same skills in the real world,’ says Shuichu Nishio.
Aside from people who are missing one of more limbs and so need prosthetics, maybe this application could be useful for the rest of the general public as well. Who knows, maybe we’ll all have an extra arm in 100 years’ time.