Robots Guided by Human Brain Waves
A new technology devised by researchers at MIT can correct the movements of a robot just by the power of thought.
It’s been almost fifty years since Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian musician, released one of his greatest hits, “If you could read my mind” about the lack of communication within a couple. We don’t know if he managed to communicate in the end, but at least the scientists at the Massachussets Institute of Technology have made a breakthrough in the communication between humans and robots. The human-machine communication interface had so far relied on operative systems or voice commands, but the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT intends to go beyond and leverage the electric signals emitted by the human brain.
For their experiment they used the body of a mock plane with three screw holes that had to be screwed by a robot, the Baxter from Rethink Robotics, aided by a volunteer equipped with a mind reading EEG helmet and muscle sensors attached to his arm. The robot had to insert each screw in the appropriate place. Without any human input, the robot was programmed to achieve a 70% success rate, but once the human collaborator intervened it managed a 97% accuracy.
Basically, the sensors detected the brain waves associated to the awareness of an error in a process, the so-called event-related potentials (ERPs). Then, the collaborator would move his arm in the right direction, with the signals captured by electromyographic (EMG) electrodes. The greatest advantage of the system developed by Daniela Rus and other researchers from MIT is that human operators don’t need any training whatsoever—the sensors are just placed on the body and the robot detects the stimuli automatically. The trick is to adapt the machine to the signals conveyed by different users instead of the other way round.
This innovative technology provides a slew of industrial applications, both for its simple and intuitive process as well as the speed at which the error messages are relayed to the robotic system.
The communication between humans and robots is crucial not only within industrial environments but also within our own homes, especially regarding elderly care. The challenge of helping an increasingly aged population, sometimes with cognitive impairment issues, requires a multidisciplinary approach. In Japan, one of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of robotic research, steps have already been taken to tackle the problem. By the year 2025, there will be an estimated 7-million Japanese citizens suffering from some kind of dementia, which speaks eloquently about the magnitude of the problem.
Due to the lack of human carers, the Japanese government started a pilot test in 2013 to implement robotics in the daily life of its senior citizens. The initial project enlisted the help of a thousand robots, with seventeen different types, to cover a range of needs. Some of them would just combat loneliness, while others would provide help with grooming and personal hygiene, as well as by fostering an active life. Finally, last year the government published the findings of the research, with encouraging results. 34% of the users stated that their living conditions had improved in one way or another.