How To Move a (Robotic) Arm with Only Your Brain

the-brain-electric-coverThe merging of brains with computers and machines is a common trope in science fiction, and any time I read an article with a headline about mind-reading computers it hits both my “so cool” and “so creepy” buttons at the same time. Journalist Malcolm Gay’s first book “The Brain Electric: The Dramatic High-Tech Race to Merge Minds and Machines” takes that place – this “so cool/so creepy” place most articles discussing specific research projects leave us at – and zooms out to give us a more complete picture of both how far we’ve come and also how much further we have to go.

You don’t have to read this book to have an idea of how difficult it must be to connect human brains with computers to drive machines. We all, I think, fundamentally “get” that without having to deep-dive into the research. This is a Hard Problem.

Where this book really shines is when it gets into the details: the realities about where this research is now, the great strides that have been made, and also how gruelling the process can be. It’s particularly thrilling to read about the successes of the brain-controlled arm done with quadriplegic Jan Scheuermann. More recently — too recent to be included in this book — Scheuermann also took control of F-35 and a single-engine Cessna in a flight simulator.

Previously these research interfaces typically worked by controlling motion by thinking of unrelated concepts: think about kicking a soccer ball to move the arm up or think about the colour blue to move the arm down. What the research team and Scheuermann were able to accomplish with Hector – that’s the name of the robotic arm Scheuermann controls – is a more nuanced, responsive control than that framework provides.

Instead of arbitrary concepts unrelated to motion, the researchers directed her to think about what she wanted the arm to do rather than translate through unassociated focusing thoughts, and trained their computers to recognize these more complex brain patterns. Which makes sense: if we ever want this technology to be useful to real people in everyday settings, translating dog=left, yellow=right, run=up, laughter=down definitely isn’t the way to do it. It makes more practical sense to tease out the “natural” brain patterns already connected with motion so we can think “go over there” or “reach down and pick up the ball”, which are instinctual, immediate, and reflexive.

“The Brain Electric” is also up-front about the challenges of this research, and the daily, repetitive grind that doesn’t make it into the newspapers. In order to participate in this research, Scheuermann had an electric grid with 96 contact points implanted into her brain. She literally gets “plugged in” to Hector via two connectors implanted into her head. It takes a highly trained technician 30 – 60 minutes to calibrate the algorithms before they can begin a session, and often they have to re-calibrate once or twice throughout the day. For a couple of weeks at a time, Scheuermann and her team will get “stuck” or even seem to lose ground they’d previously gained without understanding why. The brain, it seems, is entirely too fickle.

There are many fascinating people profiled in this book – many of them scientists of the highest calibre since it is, after all, a “dramatic high-tech race” – but I greatly appreciated that Gay didn’t ignore the personal stories of people like Jan Scheuermann, Matthew Nagle, Tim Hemmes, and Cathy Hutchinson. They aren’t scientists, but this research wouldn’t be possible without their dedication and oftentimes tedious, tiring, daily effort. It’s their brains researchers are literally plugged into, and their enthusiasm and drive is an important component to this science.

The science is interesting on its own, but reading their stories exposes the genuine value of this kind of research to impact people’s lives. Success perhaps make it possible for future people like Scheuermann, Nagle, Hemmes and Hutchinson to live independent lives again, but the most inspiring parts of their stories are how keen, enthusiastic and tenacious each of these people are. Being able to participate in and even drive meaningful work is not something we should reserve only for the able-bodied, and their stories are an important reminder that we too-often underestimate and sideline people with severe disabilities who still have a lot to contribute.

Rachelle Saunders

Rachelle is the producer and one of the hosts of "Science for the People", a syndicated radio show and podcast that broadcasts weekly across North America. It explores the connections between science, pop culture, history, and politics. By day she slings code as a web developer and listens to an astonishing number of podcasts.

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