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#435660 Toyota Research Developing New ...

With the Olympics taking place next year in Japan, Toyota is (among other things) stepping up its robotics game to help provide “mobility for all.” We know that Toyota’s HSR will be doing work there, along with a few other mobile systems, but the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) has just announced a new telepresence robot called the T-TR1, featuring an absolutely massive screen designed to give you a near-lifesize virtual presence.

T-TR1 is a virtual mobility/tele-presence robot developed by Toyota Research Institute in the United States. It is equipped with a camera atop a large, near-lifesize display.
By projecting an image of a user from a remote location, the robot will help that person feel more physically present at the robot’s location.
With T-TR1, Toyota will give people that are physically unable to attend the events such as the Games a chance to virtually attend, with an on-screen presence capable of conversation between the two locations.

TRI isn’t ready to share much more detail on this system yet (we asked, of course), but we can infer some things from the video and the rest of the info that’s out there. For example, that ball on top is a 360-degree camera (that looks a lot like an Insta360 Pro), giving the remote user just as good of an awareness of their surroundings as they would if they were there in person. There are multiple 3D-sensing systems, including at least two depth cameras plus a lidar at the base. It’s not at all clear whether the robot is autonomous or semi-autonomous (using the sensors for automated obstacle avoidance, say), and since the woman on the other end of the robot does not seem to be controlling it at all for the demo, it’s hard to make an educated guess about the level of autonomy, or even how it’s supposed to be controlled.

We really like that enormous screen—despite the fact that telepresence now requires pants. It adds to the embodiment that makes independent telepresence robots useful.

We really like that enormous screen—despite the fact that telepresence now requires pants. It adds to the embodiment that makes independent telepresence robots useful. It’s also nice that the robot can move fast enough to keep up a person walking briskly. Hopefully, it’s safe for it to move at that speed in an environment more realistic than a carpeted, half-empty conference room, although it’ll probably have to leverage all of those sensors to do so. The other challenge for the T-TR1 will be bandwidth—even assuming that all of the sensor data processing and stuff is done on-robot, 360 cameras are huge bandwidth hogs, plus there’s the primary (presumably high quality) feed from the main camera, and then the video of the user coming the other way. It’s a lot of data in a very latency-sensitive application, and it’ll presumably be operating in places where connectivity is going to be a challenge due to crowds. This has always been a problem for telepresence robots—no matter how amazing your robot is, the experience will often for better or worse be defined by Internet connections that you may have no control over.

We should emphasize that Toyota has only released the bare minimum of information about the T-TR1, although we’re told that we can expect more as the 2020 Olympics approach: opening ceremonies are one year from today.

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#435522 Harvard’s Smart Exo-Shorts Talk to the ...

Exosuits don’t generally scream “fashionable” or “svelte.” Take the mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton that allowed a paraplegic man to kick off the World Cup back in 2014. Is it cool? Hell yeah. Is it practical? Not so much.

Yapping about wearability might seem childish when the technology already helps people with impaired mobility move around dexterously. But the lesson of the ill-fated Google Glassholes, which includes an awkward dorky head tilt and an assuming voice command, clearly shows that wearable computer assistants can’t just work technologically—they have to look natural and allow the user to behave like as usual. They have to, in a sense, disappear.

To Dr. Jose Pons at the Legs + Walking Ability Lab in Chicago, exosuits need three main selling points to make it in the real world. One, they have to physically interact with their wearer and seamlessly deliver assistance when needed. Two, they should cognitively interact with the host to guide and control the robot at all times. Finally, they need to feel like a second skin—move with the user without adding too much extra mass or reducing mobility.

This week, a US-Korean collaboration delivered the whole shebang in a Lululemon-style skin-hugging package combined with a retro waist pack. The portable exosuit, weighing only 11 pounds, looks like a pair of spandex shorts but can support the wearer’s hip movement when needed. Unlike their predecessors, the shorts are embedded with sensors that let them know when the wearer is walking versus running by analyzing gait.

Switching between the two movement modes may not seem like much, but what naturally comes to our brains doesn’t translate directly to smart exosuits. “Walking and running have fundamentally different biomechanics, which makes developing devices that assist both gaits challenging,” the team said. Their algorithm, computed in the cloud, allows the wearer to easily switch between both, with the shorts providing appropriate hip support that makes the movement experience seamless.

To Pons, who was not involved in the research but wrote a perspective piece, the study is an exciting step towards future exosuits that will eventually disappear under the skin—that is, implanted neural interfaces to control robotic assistance or activate the user’s own muscles.

“It is realistic to think that we will witness, in the next several years…robust human-robot interfaces to command wearable robotics based on…the neural code of movement in humans,” he said.

A “Smart” Exosuit Hack
There are a few ways you can hack a human body to move with an exosuit. One is using implanted electrodes inside the brain or muscles to decipher movement intent. With heavy practice, a neural implant can help paralyzed people walk again or dexterously move external robotic arms. But because the technique requires surgery, it’s not an immediate sell for people who experience low mobility because of aging or low muscle tone.

The other approach is to look to biophysics. Rather than decoding neural signals that control movement, here the idea is to measure gait and other physical positions in space to decipher intent. As you can probably guess, accurately deciphering user intent isn’t easy, especially when the wearable tries to accommodate multiple gaits. But the gains are many: there’s no surgery involved, and the wearable is low in energy consumption.

Double Trouble
The authors decided to tackle an everyday situation. You’re walking to catch the train to work, realize you’re late, and immediately start sprinting.

That seemingly easy conversion hides a complex switch in biomechanics. When you walk, your legs act like an inverted pendulum that swing towards a dedicated center in a predictable way. When you run, however, the legs move more like a spring-loaded system, and the joints involved in the motion differ from a casual stroll. Engineering an assistive wearable for each is relatively simple; making one for both is exceedingly hard.

Led by Dr. Conor Walsh at Harvard University, the team started with an intuitive idea: assisted walking and running requires specialized “actuation” profiles tailored to both. When the user is moving in a way that doesn’t require assistance, the wearable needs to be out of the way so that it doesn’t restrict mobility. A quick analysis found that assisting hip extension has the largest impact, because it’s important to both gaits and doesn’t add mass to the lower legs.

Building on that insight, the team made a waist belt connected to two thigh wraps, similar to a climbing harness. Two electrical motors embedded inside the device connect the waist belt to other components through a pulley system to help the hip joints move. The whole contraption weighed about 11 lbs and didn’t obstruct natural movement.

Next, the team programmed two separate supporting profiles for walking and running. The goal was to reduce the “metabolic cost” for both movements, so that the wearer expends as little energy as needed. To switch between the two programs, they used a cloud-based classification algorithm to measure changes in energy fluctuation to figure out what mode—running or walking—the user is in.

Smart Booster
Initial trials on treadmills were highly positive. Six male volunteers with similar age and build donned the exosuit and either ran or walked on the treadmill at varying inclines. The algorithm performed perfectly at distinguishing between the two gaits in all conditions, even at steep angles.

An outdoor test with eight volunteers also proved the algorithm nearly perfect. Even on uneven terrain, only two steps out of all test trials were misclassified. In an additional trial on mud or snow, the algorithm performed just as well.

“The system allows the wearer to use their preferred gait for each speed,” the team said.

Software excellence translated to performance. A test found that the exosuit reduced the energy for walking by over nine percent and running by four percent. It may not sound like much, but the range of improvement is meaningful in athletic performance. Putting things into perspective, the team said, the metabolic rate reduction during walking is similar to taking 16 pounds off at the waist.

The Wearable Exosuit Revolution
The study’s lightweight exoshorts are hardly the only players in town. Back in 2017, SRI International’s spin-off, Superflex, engineered an Aura suit to support mobility in the elderly. The Aura used a different mechanism: rather than a pulley system, it incorporated a type of smart material that contracts in a manner similar to human muscles when zapped with electricity.

Embedded with a myriad of sensors for motion, accelerometers and gyroscopes, Aura’s smartness came from mini-computers that measure how fast the wearer is moving and track the user’s posture. The data were integrated and processed locally inside hexagon-shaped computing pods near the thighs and upper back. The pods also acted as the control center for sending electrical zaps to give the wearer a boost when needed.

Around the same time, a collaboration between Harvard’s Wyss Institute and ReWalk Robotics introduced a fabric-based wearable robot to assist a wearer’s legs for balance and movement. Meanwhile, a Swiss team coated normal fabric with electroactive material to weave soft, pliable artificial “muscles” that move with the skin.

Although health support is the current goal, the military is obviously interested in similar technologies to enhance soldiers’ physicality. Superflex’s Aura, for example, was originally inspired by technology born from DARPA’s Warrior Web Program, which aimed to reduce a soldier’s mechanical load.

That said, military gear has had a long history of trickling down to consumer use. Similar to the way camouflage, cargo pants, and GORE-TEX trickled down into the consumer ecosphere, it’s not hard to imagine your local Target eventually stocking intelligent exowear.

Image and Video Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University. Continue reading

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#435520 These Are the Meta-Trends Shaping the ...

Life is pretty different now than it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. It’s sort of exciting, and sort of scary. And hold onto your hat, because it’s going to keep changing—even faster than it already has been.

The good news is, maybe there won’t be too many big surprises, because the future will be shaped by trends that have already been set in motion. According to Singularity University co-founder and XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, a lot of these trends are unstoppable—but they’re also pretty predictable.

At SU’s Global Summit, taking place this week in San Francisco, Diamandis outlined some of the meta-trends he believes are key to how we’ll live our lives and do business in the (not too distant) future.

Increasing Global Abundance
Resources are becoming more abundant all over the world, and fewer people are seeing their lives limited by scarcity. “It’s hard for us to realize this as we see crisis news, but what people have access to is more abundant than ever before,” Diamandis said. Products and services are becoming cheaper and thus available to more people, and having more resources then enables people to create more, thus producing even more resources—and so on.

Need evidence? The proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty is currently lower than it’s ever been. The average human life expectancy is longer than it’s ever been. The costs of day-to-day needs like food, energy, transportation, and communications are on a downward trend.

Take energy. In most of the world, though its costs are decreasing, it’s still a fairly precious commodity; we turn off our lights and our air conditioners when we don’t need them (ideally, both to save money and to avoid wastefulness). But the cost of solar energy has plummeted, and the storage capacity of batteries is improving, and solar technology is steadily getting more efficient. Bids for new solar power plants in the past few years have broken each other’s records for lowest cost per kilowatt hour.

“We’re not far from a penny per kilowatt hour for energy from the sun,” Diamandis said. “And if you’ve got energy, you’ve got water.” Desalination, for one, will be much more widely feasible once the cost of the energy needed for it drops.

Knowledge is perhaps the most crucial resource that’s going from scarce to abundant. All the world’s knowledge is now at the fingertips of anyone who has a mobile phone and an internet connection—and the number of people connected is only going to grow. “Everyone is being connected at gigabit connection speeds, and this will be transformative,” Diamandis said. “We’re heading towards a world where anyone can know anything at any time.”

Increasing Capital Abundance
It’s not just goods, services, and knowledge that are becoming more plentiful. Money is, too—particularly money for business. “There’s more and more capital available to invest in companies,” Diamandis said. As a result, more people are getting the chance to bring their world-changing ideas to life.

Venture capital investments reached a new record of $130 billion in 2018, up from $84 billion in 2017—and that’s just in the US. Globally, VC funding grew 21 percent from 2017 to a total of $207 billion in 2018.

Through crowdfunding, any person in any part of the world can present their idea and ask for funding. That funding can come in the form of a loan, an equity investment, a reward, or an advanced purchase of the proposed product or service. “Crowdfunding means it doesn’t matter where you live, if you have a great idea you can get it funded by people from all over the world,” Diamandis said.

All this is making a difference; the number of unicorns—privately-held startups valued at over $1 billion—currently stands at an astounding 360.

One of the reasons why the world is getting better, Diamandis believes, is because entrepreneurs are trying more crazy ideas—not ideas that are reasonable or predictable or linear, but ideas that seem absurd at first, then eventually end up changing the world.

Everyone and Everything, Connected
As already noted, knowledge is becoming abundant thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones and wireless internet; everyone’s getting connected. In the next decade or sooner, connectivity will reach every person in the world. 5G is being tested and offered for the first time this year, and companies like Google, SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon are racing to develop global satellite internet constellations, whether by launching 12,000 satellites, as SpaceX’s Starlink is doing, or by floating giant balloons into the stratosphere like Google’s Project Loon.

“We’re about to reach a period of time in the next four to six years where we’re going from half the world’s people being connected to the whole world being connected,” Diamandis said. “What happens when 4.2 billion new minds come online? They’re all going to want to create, discover, consume, and invent.”

And it doesn’t stop at connecting people. Things are becoming more connected too. “By 2020 there will be over 20 billion connected devices and more than one trillion sensors,” Diamandis said. By 2030, those projections go up to 500 billion and 100 trillion. Think about it: there’s home devices like refrigerators, TVs, dishwashers, digital assistants, and even toasters. There’s city infrastructure, from stoplights to cameras to public transportation like buses or bike sharing. It’s all getting smart and connected.

Soon we’ll be adding autonomous cars to the mix, and an unimaginable glut of data to go with them. Every turn, every stop, every acceleration will be a data point. Some cars already collect over 25 gigabytes of data per hour, Diamandis said, and car data is projected to generate $750 billion of revenue by 2030.

“You’re going to start asking questions that were never askable before, because the data is now there to be mined,” he said.

Increasing Human Intelligence
Indeed, we’ll have data on everything we could possibly want data on. We’ll also soon have what Diamandis calls just-in-time education, where 5G combined with artificial intelligence and augmented reality will allow you to learn something in the moment you need it. “It’s not going and studying, it’s where your AR glasses show you how to do an emergency surgery, or fix something, or program something,” he said.

We’re also at the beginning of massive investments in research working towards connecting our brains to the cloud. “Right now, everything we think, feel, hear, or learn is confined in our synaptic connections,” Diamandis said. What will it look like when that’s no longer the case? Companies like Kernel, Neuralink, Open Water, Facebook, Google, and IBM are all investing billions of dollars into brain-machine interface research.

Increasing Human Longevity
One of the most important problems we’ll use our newfound intelligence to solve is that of our own health and mortality, making 100 years old the new 60—then eventually, 120 or 150.

“Our bodies were never evolved to live past age 30,” Diamandis said. “You’d go into puberty at age 13 and have a baby, and by the time you were 26 your baby was having a baby.”

Seeing how drastically our lifespans have changed over time makes you wonder what aging even is; is it natural, or is it a disease? Many companies are treating it as one, and using technologies like senolytics, CRISPR, and stem cell therapy to try to cure it. Scaffolds of human organs can now be 3D printed then populated with the recipient’s own stem cells so that their bodies won’t reject the transplant. Companies are testing small-molecule pharmaceuticals that can stop various forms of cancer.

“We don’t truly know what’s going on inside our bodies—but we can,” Diamandis said. “We’re going to be able to track our bodies and find disease at stage zero.”

Chins Up
The world is far from perfect—that’s not hard to see. What’s less obvious but just as true is that we’re living in an amazing time. More people are coming together, and they have more access to information, and that information moves faster, than ever before.

“I don’t think any of us understand how fast the world is changing,” Diamandis said. “Most people are fearful about the future. But we should be excited about the tools we now have to solve the world’s problems.”

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#435423 Moving Beyond Mind-Controlled Limbs to ...

Brain-machine interface enthusiasts often gush about “closing the loop.” It’s for good reason. On the implant level, it means engineering smarter probes that only activate when they detect faulty electrical signals in brain circuits. Elon Musk’s Neuralink—among other players—are readily pursuing these bi-directional implants that both measure and zap the brain.

But to scientists laboring to restore functionality to paralyzed patients or amputees, “closing the loop” has broader connotations. Building smart mind-controlled robotic limbs isn’t enough; the next frontier is restoring sensation in offline body parts. To truly meld biology with machine, the robotic appendage has to “feel one” with the body.

This month, two studies from Science Robotics describe complementary ways forward. In one, scientists from the University of Utah paired a state-of-the-art robotic arm—the DEKA LUKE—with electrically stimulating remaining nerves above the attachment point. Using artificial zaps to mimic the skin’s natural response patterns to touch, the team dramatically increased the patient’s ability to identify objects. Without much training, he could easily discriminate between the small and large and the soft and hard while blindfolded and wearing headphones.

In another, a team based at the National University of Singapore took inspiration from our largest organ, the skin. Mimicking the neural architecture of biological skin, the engineered “electronic skin” not only senses temperature, pressure, and humidity, but continues to function even when scraped or otherwise damaged. Thanks to artificial nerves that transmit signals far faster than our biological ones, the flexible e-skin shoots electrical data 1,000 times quicker than human nerves.

Together, the studies marry neuroscience and robotics. Representing the latest push towards closing the loop, they show that integrating biological sensibilities with robotic efficiency isn’t impossible (super-human touch, anyone?). But more immediately—and more importantly—they’re beacons of hope for patients who hope to regain their sense of touch.

For one of the participants, a late middle-aged man with speckled white hair who lost his forearm 13 years ago, superpowers, cyborgs, or razzle-dazzle brain implants are the last thing on his mind. After a barrage of emotionally-neutral scientific tests, he grasped his wife’s hand and felt her warmth for the first time in over a decade. His face lit up in a blinding smile.

That’s what scientists are working towards.

Biomimetic Feedback
The human skin is a marvelous thing. Not only does it rapidly detect a multitude of sensations—pressure, temperature, itch, pain, humidity—its wiring “binds” disparate signals together into a sensory fingerprint that helps the brain identify what it’s feeling at any moment. Thanks to over 45 miles of nerves that connect the skin, muscles, and brain, you can pick up a half-full coffee cup, knowing that it’s hot and sloshing, while staring at your computer screen. Unfortunately, this complexity is also why restoring sensation is so hard.

The sensory electrode array implanted in the participant’s arm. Image Credit: George et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaax2352 (2019)..
However, complex neural patterns can also be a source of inspiration. Previous cyborg arms are often paired with so-called “standard” sensory algorithms to induce a basic sense of touch in the missing limb. Here, electrodes zap residual nerves with intensities proportional to the contact force: the harder the grip, the stronger the electrical feedback. Although seemingly logical, that’s not how our skin works. Every time the skin touches or leaves an object, its nerves shoot strong bursts of activity to the brain; while in full contact, the signal is much lower. The resulting electrical strength curve resembles a “U.”

The LUKE hand. Image Credit: George et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaax2352 (2019).
The team decided to directly compare standard algorithms with one that better mimics the skin’s natural response. They fitted a volunteer with a robotic LUKE arm and implanted an array of electrodes into his forearm—right above the amputation—to stimulate the remaining nerves. When the team activated different combinations of electrodes, the man reported sensations of vibration, pressure, tapping, or a sort of “tightening” in his missing hand. Some combinations of zaps also made him feel as if he were moving the robotic arm’s joints.

In all, the team was able to carefully map nearly 120 sensations to different locations on the phantom hand, which they then overlapped with contact sensors embedded in the LUKE arm. For example, when the patient touched something with his robotic index finger, the relevant electrodes sent signals that made him feel as if he were brushing something with his own missing index fingertip.

Standard sensory feedback already helped: even with simple electrical stimulation, the man could tell apart size (golf versus lacrosse ball) and texture (foam versus plastic) while blindfolded and wearing noise-canceling headphones. But when the team implemented two types of neuromimetic feedback—electrical zaps that resembled the skin’s natural response—his performance dramatically improved. He was able to identify objects much faster and more accurately under their guidance. Outside the lab, he also found it easier to cook, feed, and dress himself. He could even text on his phone and complete routine chores that were previously too difficult, such as stuffing an insert into a pillowcase, hammering a nail, or eating hard-to-grab foods like eggs and grapes.

The study shows that the brain more readily accepts biologically-inspired electrical patterns, making it a relatively easy—but enormously powerful—upgrade that seamlessly integrates the robotic arms with the host. “The functional and emotional benefits…are likely to be further enhanced with long-term use, and efforts are underway to develop a portable take-home system,” the team said.

E-Skin Revolution: Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES)
Flexible electronic skins also aren’t new, but the second team presented an upgrade in both speed and durability while retaining multiplexed sensory capabilities.

Starting from a combination of rubber, plastic, and silicon, the team embedded over 200 sensors onto the e-skin, each capable of discerning contact, pressure, temperature, and humidity. They then looked to the skin’s nervous system for inspiration. Our skin is embedded with a dense array of nerve endings that individually transmit different types of sensations, which are integrated inside hubs called ganglia. Compared to having every single nerve ending directly ping data to the brain, this “gather, process, and transmit” architecture rapidly speeds things up.

The team tapped into this biological architecture. Rather than pairing each sensor with a dedicated receiver, ACES sends all sensory data to a single receiver—an artificial ganglion. This setup lets the e-skin’s wiring work as a whole system, as opposed to individual electrodes. Every sensor transmits its data using a characteristic pulse, which allows it to be uniquely identified by the receiver.

The gains were immediate. First was speed. Normally, sensory data from multiple individual electrodes need to be periodically combined into a map of pressure points. Here, data from thousands of distributed sensors can independently go to a single receiver for further processing, massively increasing efficiency—the new e-skin’s transmission rate is roughly 1,000 times faster than that of human skin.

Second was redundancy. Because data from individual sensors are aggregated, the system still functioned even when any individual receptors are damaged, making it far more resilient than previous attempts. Finally, the setup could easily scale up. Although the team only tested the idea with 240 sensors, theoretically the system should work with up to 10,000.

The team is now exploring ways to combine their invention with other material layers to make it water-resistant and self-repairable. As you might’ve guessed, an immediate application is to give robots something similar to complex touch. A sensory upgrade not only lets robots more easily manipulate tools, doorknobs, and other objects in hectic real-world environments, it could also make it easier for machines to work collaboratively with humans in the future (hey Wall-E, care to pass the salt?).

Dexterous robots aside, the team also envisions engineering better prosthetics. When coated onto cyborg limbs, for example, ACES may give them a better sense of touch that begins to rival the human skin—or perhaps even exceed it.

Regardless, efforts that adapt the functionality of the human nervous system to machines are finally paying off, and more are sure to come. Neuromimetic ideas may very well be the link that finally closes the loop.

Image Credit: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering.. Continue reading

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#435308 Brain-Machine Interfaces Are Getting ...

Elon Musk grabbed a lot of attention with his July 16 announcement that his company Neuralink plans to implant electrodes into the brains of people with paralysis by next year. Their first goal is to create assistive technology to help people who can’t move or are unable to communicate.

If you haven’t been paying attention, brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that allow people to control robotic arms with their thoughts might sound like science fiction. But science and engineering efforts have already turned it into reality.

In a few research labs around the world, scientists and physicians have been implanting devices into the brains of people who have lost the ability to control their arms or hands for over a decade. In our own research group at the University of Pittsburgh, we’ve enabled people with paralyzed arms and hands to control robotic arms that allow them to grasp and move objects with relative ease. They can even experience touch-like sensations from their own hand when the robot grasps objects.

At its core, a BMI is pretty straightforward. In your brain, microscopic cells called neurons are sending signals back and forth to each other all the time. Everything you think, do and feel as you interact with the world around you is the result of the activity of these 80 billion or so neurons.

If you implant a tiny wire very close to one of these neurons, you can record the electrical activity it generates and send it to a computer. Record enough of these signals from the right area of the brain and it becomes possible to control computers, robots, or anything else you might want, simply by thinking about moving. But doing this comes with tremendous technical challenges, especially if you want to record from hundreds or thousands of neurons.

What Neuralink Is Bringing to the Table
Elon Musk founded Neuralink in 2017, aiming to address these challenges and raise the bar for implanted neural interfaces.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Neuralink’s system is the breadth and depth of their approach. Building a BMI is inherently interdisciplinary, requiring expertise in electrode design and microfabrication, implantable materials, surgical methods, electronics, packaging, neuroscience, algorithms, medicine, regulatory issues, and more. Neuralink has created a team that spans most, if not all, of these areas.

With all of this expertise, Neuralink is undoubtedly moving the field forward, and improving their technology rapidly. Individually, many of the components of their system represent significant progress along predictable paths. For example, their electrodes, that they call threads, are very small and flexible; many researchers have tried to harness those properties to minimize the chance the brain’s immune response would reject the electrodes after insertion. Neuralink has also developed high-performance miniature electronics, another focus area for labs working on BMIs.

Often overlooked in academic settings, however, is how an entire system would be efficiently implanted in a brain.

Neuralink’s BMI requires brain surgery. This is because implanted electrodes that are in intimate contact with neurons will always outperform non-invasive electrodes where neurons are far away from the electrodes sitting outside the skull. So, a critical question becomes how to minimize the surgical challenges around getting the device into a brain.

Maybe the most impressive aspect of Neuralink’s announcement was that they created a 3,000-electrode neural interface where electrodes could be implanted at a rate of between 30 and 200 per minute. Each thread of electrodes is implanted by a sophisticated surgical robot that essentially acts like a sewing machine. This all happens while specifically avoiding blood vessels that blanket the surface of the brain. The robotics and imaging that enable this feat, with tight integration to the entire device, is striking.

Neuralink has thought through the challenge of developing a clinically viable BMI from beginning to end in a way that few groups have done, though they acknowledge that many challenges remain as they work towards getting this technology into human patients in the clinic.

Figuring Out What More Electrodes Gets You
The quest for implantable devices with thousands of electrodes is not only the domain of private companies. DARPA, the NIH BRAIN Initiative, and international consortiums are working on neurotechnologies for recording and stimulating in the brain with goals of tens of thousands of electrodes. But what might scientists do with the information from 1,000, 3,000, or maybe even 100,000 neurons?

At some level, devices with more electrodes might not actually be necessary to have a meaningful impact in people’s lives. Effective control of computers for access and communication, of robotic limbs to grasp and move objects as well as of paralyzed muscles is already happening—in people. And it has been for a number of years.

Since the 1990s, the Utah Array, which has just 100 electrodes and is manufactured by Blackrock Microsystems, has been a critical device in neuroscience and clinical research. This electrode array is FDA-cleared for temporary neural recording. Several research groups, including our own, have implanted Utah Arrays in people that lasted multiple years.

Currently, the biggest constraints are related to connectors, electronics, and system-level engineering, not the implanted electrode itself—although increasing the electrodes’ lifespan to more than five years would represent a significant advance. As those technical capabilities improve, it might turn out that the ability to accurately control computers and robots is limited more by scientists’ understanding of what the neurons are saying—that is, the neural code—than by the number of electrodes on the device.

Even the most capable implanted system, and maybe the most capable devices researchers can reasonably imagine, might fall short of the goal of actually augmenting skilled human performance. Nevertheless, Neuralink’s goal of creating better BMIs has the potential to improve the lives of people who can’t move or are unable to communicate. Right now, Musk’s vision of using BMIs to meld physical brains and intelligence with artificial ones is no more than a dream.

So, what does the future look like for Neuralink and other groups creating implantable BMIs? Devices with more electrodes that last longer and are connected to smaller and more powerful wireless electronics are essential. Better devices themselves, however, are insufficient. Continued public and private investment in companies and academic research labs, as well as innovative ways for these groups to work together to share technologies and data, will be necessary to truly advance scientists’ understanding of the brain and deliver on the promise of BMIs to improve peoples’ lives.

While researchers need to keep the future societal implications of advanced neurotechnologies in mind—there’s an essential role for ethicists and regulation—BMIs could be truly transformative as they help more people overcome limitations caused by injury or disease in the brain and body.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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