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Reanimating the body, with the power of thought

Reanimating the body, with the power of thought

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Speaking at TEDxPhilly, biomedical engineer Iyad Obeid sheds light on what researchers are doing to marry brain and machine to improve the performance of both.

PHILADELPHIA -- In the future, man and machine will become one.

Powering it all? The brain.

Speaking at the TEDxPhilly conference in Philadelphia's Kimmel Center, biomedical engineer Iyad Obeid said researchers are already hard at work attempting to harness the power of the brain to control mechanical devices such as computers or robotic prostheses.

And despite what you've seen in the movies, machines won't replace brains. Instead, they'll complement them, because the two function in completely different ways.

"We're learning how to tap into the processing that the brain has -- what it can do," Obeid said. "By learning its language, we can harness that to make a lot of our day-to-day problems a lot easier."

The director of Temple University's Neural Instrumentation Laboratory, Obeid took the crowd step-by-step through the process of understanding and translating the brain to craft a brain-machine interface to allow it to communicate with a man-made electronic machine.

First, you start with the brain.

"The first thing you do is ask the brain what it's thinking," he said. "You put a bunch of electrodes down, and you get a bunch of data. Holy cow, it's a mess."

To sift through it, researchers work backwards to figure out how to interpret the brain's signals, which he likened to a pile of Scrabble tiles with letters from different alphabets.

"It's even harder than that, because nothing in the brain is static," he said, explaining that the same physical action -- such as moving your arm in a circle -- looks a little different each time it's repeated.

To accommodate for this, researchers build statistical maps that try to offer a rough estimate of a specific function. Designing brain-machine systems must take this plasticity into account, Obeid said.

"Your brain is plastic. It evolves over time. Our brains are constantly changing," he said. "We have to have systems that can re-tune themselves on the fly."

This approach -- leveraging engineering tools for the study of the brain -- is a relatively new one, and it's helping researchers decode how the brain works and what it's telling us, he said.

"At the end of the day, none of this work is possible unless we really try to understand how the brain is working," he said, adding that researchers seek to correlate neuron firing rates and actions. "What this is really all about is unraveling the language of the mind and figuring out how we can tap into this power."

Ultimately, scientists want a testable hypothesis on how the brain manages information. With it, they can begin to make their own actions, such as with a robotic limb.

"You don't just look at one neuron, you look at five. Or ten. Or a hundred. Or a thousand. And then you take an average," he said. "Amazingly, this works. It's a little bit limited, but it works. It's what we've got."

The wild card is actually the brain itself, which can retrain itself to accommodate for a relatively rough, man-made brain-interface system, Obeid said.

"When you design a system like this, in the beginning, it doesn't work very well," he said. "Over time, the user learns how to do it. It's because of brain plasticity. The user is motivated to learn it. The brain neurons are re-tuned on the fly to motivate that prosthesis."

Obeid said the phenomenon is unique and not apparent in any other field of study.

"Could you imagine saying, I don't need to build a whole bridge [between New Jersey and Pennsylvania], I need to build a half a bridge, and Philadelphia would just slide on right over?" he said. "I know of nothing else like this. It's a godsend."

Currently, Obeid's research team is working to design a synthetic system to test these interfaces in the lab, rather than on animals or humans, which are too complex for testing.

"The value of this is that we're learning how the brain works," he said. "We have new tools to pick apart for the first time what it's doing and how it's doing it."

Are we all destined to become machines, and vice-versa? Obeid said comparing humans and machines is akin to comparing oranges and apples.

"A regular computer is designed to add numbers [then scale]," he said. "Computers are unbelievably efficient at achieving specific tasks, because they're designed to do that. Brains are made to find Waldo. Your brain is a relatively low-power device. It's also very good at looking at two faces and saying, 'Those are very different, but that's the same person.' "

Because of this contrast, Obeid said the computing device of the future may have a central processing unit alongside a bundle of neurons -- a "contextual processing unit" to "do stuff that the silicon is not designed to do."

"Brains are designed to do very different things," he said. "Let's harness that power."

It works the other way, too. In the future, humans may not carry computers in their pockets but rather in their bodies.

"I can envision a future where we have memory chips [in us]," he said. "If you want to have unspeakable memory, that might happen. Or have MP3s played directly into your auditory cortex, that might happen."

Obeid admitted he was being a bit facetious, but said this hybrid approach -- man and machine -- was not something to be feared.

"Will it change our humanity? I don't think so," he said. "We're always going to be human. These new technologies are going to evolve us a little bit, maybe help us be more creative, more productive, more interesting.

"I don't think there's anything to be afraid of. Maybe we'll become more human in the process."

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure