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Scientists reveal mind-controlled robots for paraplegics

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Can brain-to-machine technology be used in order to improve the lives of those who have lost the use of their limbs?

A robot that can be controlled by the brainwaves of a paraplegic person wearing an electrode-fitted cap has been unveiled by Swiss scientists.

In the Swiss town of Lausanne, a team at the Federal Institute of Technology used a simple head cap to record the brain signal of partially paraplegic Mark-Andre Duc, who was situated in a hospital over 100 kilometers away in Sion.

Connected wirelessly to a laptop at the hospital, the electric signals emitted by Duc's brain when he imagined lifting his fingers -- suffering from paralysis -- were decoded by the machine. Once transferred, the instructions, either to move left or right, were then transmitted to a robot in the Lausanne lab.

Duc said that controlling the small, mobile robot wasn’t hard on a day that didn’t have continual distractions, such as pain or a lack of concentration. "But when I'm in pain it becomes more difficult," he said.

Currently, the technology is hampered by the same limitations that scientists encountered when the research in to these types of brain-to-machine interfaces began over a decade ago.

These problems include external, confusing signals -- such as others around the subject -- background noise or a lack of concentration which can confuse or scramble the mind-relayed directions.

According to the Seattle Times, in order to try and finally solve these issues, the Swiss team developed technology designed to mimic the brain's subconscious pathways and patterns. Once a command, such as 'walk forward' is 'thought' and sent, the computer will continue to execute the order until the next command tells it to stop, or it encounters an obstacle.

Developed by a professor at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne, Jose Millan, he hopes that this non-evasive connection between machines and the human brain may be used to help patients recover their lost senses, and to reconnect them with the world by allowing them to control something physical if their own faculties fail through neuroprosthetics.

Teams at the institute are also working on a number of other projects designed to help disabled individuals; including an ‘electric skin’ for amputees that sends information to a user’s nervous system, and electrode implants for those with spinal cord injuries to allow people to walk again.

Image credit: AP

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure