Is our world ready for mind-controllable robotic body parts?
Recently, a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota (UMN) built a robotic hand that can be controlled by the user’s thoughts, via a brain chip.
It might sound like a cool prop from a sci-fi movie, but, in reality, mind-controllable robotic limbs are becoming life-changing technology for amputees, including injured soldiers.
Most current-generation robot body parts are equipped with sensors that recognize tiny movements in the remaining muscles of the shoulder, chest, leg, or hand. If a user needs to move their prosthetic part, they must first trigger a muscle or body movement.
Learning and adapting to these artificial body parts takes practice, time and patience – moreover, a physically weak individual can find it difficult to use their.
Explaining the difference between their neuroprosthetic hand and current prostheses, Jules Anh Tuan Nguyen, researcher at UMN said, “With other commercial prosthetic systems, when amputees want to move a finger, they don’t really think about moving a finger. They are trying to activate their arm muscles since that is what the system is reading. For this reason, these systems require a lot of learning and practice.
In contrast, their technology uses true mind reading: “For our technology, because we directly interpret the nerve signal, it knows the patient’s intent. If they want to move a finger, all they have to do is think about moving that finger.
The researchers point out that the mind-controllable body parts are ready for use right after installation. They don’t require a lot of training, so users don’t have to stress and frustration to adapt to an artificial part of the body.
However, such high-end prostheses have even more exciting benefits waiting to be unlocked.
The Many Possibilities of Mind-Controlled Devices: Brain-controlled robotic parts will not only help amputees, but can also help patients with paralysis and other types of disorders related to neural and bodily coordination.
For example, a brain-computer interface (BCI) – an algorithm-based technology that uses different types of sensors to decode brain signals – may allow patients with paralysis to control their own robotic wheelchairs. BCIs have also enabled such patients to work on computers and tablets using their thoughts.
The neuroprosthetic hand developed at UMN, and published in the journal of neural engineering, is controlled using a brain chip that uses advanced BCI. The neural chip is equipped with an AI-powered neural decoder that uses machine learning to convert neural signals into machine-compatible mathematical data.
Most current-generation prostheses have sensors that recognize tiny movements in the remaining muscles. To move their prosthesis, a user must first trigger a muscle movement.
The code can guide the movement of the robotic arm – or potentially anything that can be controlled by a computer or the Internet – at the user’s will.
The UMN researchers suggest that users could sync their brain chips with their phones and other gadgets. This would allow them to use their robotic hands to control every piece of smart technology around them.
“This technology was designed for amputees, but if you talk about its true potential, it could apply to all of us,” wrote Zhi Yang, one of the scientists who led the development of the brain chip at the ‘UMN.
Privacy issues related to mind-controllable robots: Many previously published research papers regarding BCIs and brainchips argue that on some level, these advanced technologies that allow humans to control machines with their minds could pose a threat to the privacy of their users.
A 2017 article in Nature Researchers from Columbia University argue that the integration of AI and BCIs could be used to manipulate human thought and violate people’s privacy, so there is a need to put in place ethical rules and safeguards strong to avoid such undesirable results.
When it comes to brainchips, many computer and bionics experts believe it is possible for brainchips to be hacked and then used against you.
Imagine you have a BCI that allows you to control a robotic assistant and many other smart devices in your home. If someone remotely hacks control of your chip, they could potentially steal private information, read or intercept some of your thoughts, or even make your robot do something you didn’t expect.
Ning Jiang, a bionic expert told CBC“You have to have a very, very high level of security to control who can read my mind, and how they can read my mind, when they can read my mind.”
So should we accept or reject mind-controllable prostheses? Technologies like BCIs and neuroprosthetic arms are indeed promising innovations. They have the potential to make humans more capable than ever. Imagine an amputee feeling no loss of ability, an injured soldier recovering their limbs without any mental struggle, a paralyzed person regaining their mobility.
All of this is possible, but we also need to make sure that our privacy and security are protected from hackers and Evil AI.