The Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (part one of five) May 19, 2014 post kicked off a series titled ‘Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement’ which brings together a number of developments in the worlds of neuroscience, prosthetics, and, incidentally, nanotechnology in the field of interest called human enhancement. Parts one through four are an attempt to draw together a number of new developments, mostly in the US and in Europe. Due to my language skills which extend to English and, more tenuously, French, I can’t provide a more ‘global perspective’. Part five features a summary.
Brazil’s World Cup for soccer/football which opens on June 12, 2014 will be the first public viewing of someone with paraplegia demonstrating a mind-controlled exoskeleton (or a robotic suit as it’s sometimes called) by opening the 2014 games with the first kick-off.
I’ve been covering this story since 2011 and, even so, was late to the party as per this May 7, 2014 article by Alejandra Martins for BBC World news online,
The World Cup curtain-raiser will see the first public demonstration of a mind-controlled exoskeleton that will enable a person with paralysis to walk.
If all goes as planned, the robotic suit will spring to life in front of almost 70,000 spectators and a global audience of billions of people.
The exoskeleton was developed by an international team of scientists as part of the Walk Again Project and is the culmination of more than a decade of work for Dr Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist based at Duke University in North Carolina. [emphasis mine]
Since November , Dr Nicolelis has been training eight patients at a lab in Sao Paulo, in the midst of huge media speculation that one of them will stand up from his or her wheelchair and deliver the first kick of this year’s World Cup.
“That was the original plan,” the Duke University researcher told the BBC. “But not even I could tell you the specifics of how the demonstration will take place. This is being discussed at the moment.”
Speaking in Portuguese from Sao Paulo, Miguel Nicolelis explained that all the patients are over 20 years of age, with the oldest about 35.
“We started the training in a virtual environment with a simulator. In the last few days, four patients have donned the exoskeleton to take their first steps and one of them has used mental control to kick a ball,” he explained.
The history of Nicolelis’ work is covered here in a series of a posts starting the with an Oct. 5, 2011 post (Advertising for the 21st Century: B-Reel, ‘storytelling’, and mind control; scroll down 2/3 of the way for a reference to Ed Yong’s article where I first learned of Nicolelis).
The work was explored in more depth in a March 16, 2012 posting (Monkeys, mind control, robots, prosthetics, and the 2014 World Cup (soccer/football) and then followed up a year later by two posts which link Nicoleliis’ work with the Brain Activity Map (now called, BRAIN [Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies] initiative: a March 4, 2013 (Brain-to-brain communication, organic computers, and BAM [brain activity map], the connectome) and a March 8, 2013 post (Prosthetics and the human brain) directly linking exoskeleton work in Holland and the project at Duke with current brain research and the dawning of a new relationship to one’s prosthestics,
On the heels of research which suggests that humans tend to view their prostheses, including wheel chairs, as part of their bodies, researchers in Europe have announced the development of a working exoskeleton powered by the wearer’s thoughts.
Getting back to Brazil and Nicolelis’ technology, Ian Sample offers an excellent description in an April 1, 2014 article for the Guardian (Note: Links have been removed),
The technology in question is a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton. The complex and conspicuous robotic suit, built from lightweight alloys and powered by hydraulics, has a simple enough function. When a paraplegic person straps themselves in, the machine does the job that their leg muscles no longer can.
The exoskeleton is the culmination of years of work by an international team of scientists and engineers on the Walk Again project. The robotics work was coordinated by Gordon Cheng at the Technical University in Munich, and French researchers built the exoskeleton. Nicolelis’s team focused on ways to read people’s brain waves, and use those signals to control robotic limbs.
To operate the exoskeleton, the person is helped into the suit and given a cap to wear that is fitted with electrodes to pick up their brain waves. These signals are passed to a computer worn in a backpack, where they are decoded and used to move hydraulic drivers on the suit.
The exoskeleton is powered by a battery – also carried in the backpack – that allows for two hours of continuous use.
“The movements are very smooth,” Nicolelis told the Guardian. “They are human movements, not robotic movements.”
Nicolelis says that in trials so far, his patients seem have taken to the exoskeleton. “This thing was made for me,” one patient told him after being strapped into the suit.
The operator’s feet rest on plates which have sensors to detect when contact is made with the ground. With each footfall, a signal shoots up to a vibrating device sewn into the forearm of the wearer’s shirt. The device seems to fool the brain into thinking that the sensation came from their foot. In virtual reality simulations, patients felt that their legs were moving and touching something.
Sample’s article includes a good schematic of the ‘suit’ which I have not been able to find elsewhere (meaning the Guardian likely has a copyright for the schematic and is why you won’t see it here) and speculation about robotics and prosthetics in the future.
Nicolelis and his team have a Facebook page for the Walk Again Project where you can get some of the latest information with both English and Portuguese language entries as they prepare for the June 12, 2014 kickoff.
One final thought, this kickoff project represents an unlikely confluence of events. After all, what are the odds
- that a Brazil-born researcher (Nicolelis) would be working on a project to give paraplegics the ability to walk again? and
- that Brazil would host the World Cup in 2014 (the first time since 1950)? and
- that the timing would coincide so a public demonstration at one of the world’s largest athletic events (of a sport particularly loved in Brazil) could be planned?
It becomes even more extraordinary when one considers that Brazil had isolated itself somewhat in the 1980s with a policy of nationalism vis à vis the computer industry (from the Brazil Science and Technology webpage on the ITA website),
In the early 1980s, the policy of technological nationalism and self-sufficiency had narrowed to the computer sector, where protective legislation tried to shield the Brazilian mini- and microcomputer industries from foreign competition. Here again, the policy allowed for the growth of local industry and a few well-qualified firms, but the effect on the productive capabilities of the economy as a whole was negative; and the inability to follow the international market in price and quality forced the policy to be discontinued.
For those who may have forgotten, the growth of the computer industry (specifically personal computers) in the 1980s figured hugely in a country’s economic health and, in this case,with a big negative impact in Brazil.
Returning to 2014, the kickoff in Brazil (if successful) symbolizes more than an international athletic competition or a technical/medical achievement, this kick-off symbolizes a technological future for Brazil and its place on the world stage (despite the protests and social unrest) .
Links to other posts in the Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement five-part series
Part one: Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (May 19, 2014 post)
Part two: BRAIN and ethics in the US with some Canucks (not the hockey team) participating (May 19, 2014)
Part three: Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society issued May 2014 by US Presidential Bioethics Commission (May 20, 2014)
Part five: Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement: summary (May 20, 2014)
ETA June 16, 2014: The kickoff seems to have been a disappointment (June 15, 2014 news item on phys.org) and for those who might be interested in some of the reasons for the World Cup unrest and protests in Brazil, John Oliver provides an excoriating overview of the organization which organizes the World Cup games while professing his great love of the games, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlJEt2KU33I