Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Sci-Fi Future Is Here & Now (part 13): Mind-controlled exoskeleton suit

Amazing medical advancements have often featured in science fiction stories in which devices are employed to help the blind to see or the physically impaired to regain their mobility and independence.

The concept of trans-humanism is often explored in sci-fi highlighting the more sinister applications of using devices such exoskeletons to enhance human abilities, especially in relation to military applications.

Brain-controlled exo-skeleton allows paralyzed man to walk

First Steps

Just recently, we have learned that a man has been able to move all four of his paralyzed limbs with a mind-controlled exoskeleton suit.

The patient had suffered an injury to his spinal cord that left him paralyzed and he spent the next two years in hospital.

Then in 2017, he took part in the exoskeleton trial with Clinatec and the University of Grenoble, France.

He began by practicing using the brain implants to control a virtual character, or avatar, in a computer game before moving on to walking in the suit.

By “walking” we are not referring to autonomous walking as the patient needs to be attached to an overhead harness in order to reduce the risk of him falling over.

Proof Of Concept

Although the man’s movements are at the moment far from perfect and the exoskeleton suit is being used only in the lab, this development could in the future lead to the improvement of patients' quality of life.

The patient in question had surgery to place two implants on the surface of his brain (to avoid possible infection), covering the parts of the brain that control movement.

Sixty-four electrodes on each implant read the brain activity and beamed the instructions to a nearby computer.

The computer software then read the brainwaves and turned them into instructions for controlling the exoskeleton into which the patient had been strapped.

When the patient thinks "walk," a chain of movements in the robotic suit are set in motion that in turn move his legs forward. He can also control each of the arms, maneuvering them in three-dimensional space.

At the moment there are limits imposed by the amount of data that can be read from the brain, sent to a computer, interpreted and then sent to the exoskeleton in real-time. Only 32 out of the 64 electrodes on each implant are being used. There is, therefore potential to read the brain in more detail by using more powerful computers and artificial intelligence to interpret the information from the brain.

The implants have been successfully used by the patient to control a wheelchair and there are plans to develop finger control to allow him to pick up and move objects.

The future holds out wonderful possibilities with such medical advancements especially when combined with progress in the areas of spinal cord and nerve regeneration.

Costs & Benefits

On the face of it, no-one can argue with the development and application of such amazing technology that is aimed at the repairing of injured patients who have lost function. Will it, however be made available to everyone with spinal cord injury, or will the cost of it place it out of reach of most who would need it?

One can easily imagine a future in which human beings will be routinely implanted with microchips and electrodes allowing them to control with their minds and the power of thought not just medically assistive devices, but everyday devices such as houselights and appliances.

Technology that we now carry around with us will be incorporated into our attire and accessories and then into our very bodies. Some day, all the functions we can now perform with our smart phones including communication will be able to be performed via mind-control.

Imagine at birth or in infancy being required to not only receive the necessary vaccinations, but also being required to have the necessary technological implants (complete with all our personal information being constantly updated) inserted into our brains and bodies in order for us just to function in a future world of smart homes and smart cities.

The question remains: who or what will be doing the controlling?

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