Obama shakes mind-con­trolled ro­bot hand wired to sense touch

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

A par­a­lyzed man shared a hand­shake with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama on Thurs­day by us­ing a mind-con­trolled robotic arm that, in a first for med­i­cal re­search, is help­ing to re­store his sense of touch.

Obama fist-bumped Nathan Copeland’s robotic hand, and tiny chips im­planted in Copeland’s brain let him use his thoughts to move the Star Trek­look­ing metal arm at­tached to his wheel­chair - and also let him feel sub­tle pres­sure in his own fin­gers when the ar­ti­fi­cial ones were touched.

He had “pretty im­pres­sive pre­ci­sion,” Obama said. “When I’m mov­ing the hand, it is also send­ing sig­nals to Nathan so he is feel­ing me touch­ing or mov­ing his arm.” The pres­i­dent con­grat­u­lated the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh re­searchers who are de­vel­op­ing the tech­nol­ogy, say­ing, “what a story.”

The re­search is part of a quest to make ar­ti­fi­cial limbs that can feel. On Thurs­day, the Pitts­burgh team re­ported im­por­tant early find­ings: When they blind­folded Copeland, he could cor­rectly iden­tify which robotic fin­ger they touched 84 per­cent of the time.

“The ma­jor­ity of them, it felt like a pres­sure or a tin­gling” in his own cor­re­spond­ing fin­ger, said Copeland, 30, of Dun­bar, Penn­syl­va­nia, who was left par­a­lyzed after a car ac­ci­dent. When a re­searcher touched two fin­gers at the same time, “I just laughed and I said, ‘Are you try­ing to be tricky or some­thing?”

Pre­par­ing to show the pres­i­dent how the cut­ting-edge re­search worked, Copeland said he was “cir­cling be­tween ex­cited and ner­vous ev­ery halfhour.”

Har­ness­ing brain waves to power pros­thet­ics is a hot field, with a goal of giving the dis­abled more in­de­pen­dence and im­prov­ing ar­ti­fi­cial limbs for am­putees as well. Head­lines in re­cent years have re­ported ex­per­i­ments that let par­a­lyzed peo­ple move a robotic arm to touch a loved one or take a drink sim­ply by imag­in­ing the mo­tion. Their thoughts ac­ti­vate brain im­plants that re­lay elec­tri­cal sig­nals needed to com­mand move­ment. The sig­nals are trans­mit­ted through a com­puter to the robotic limb.

What’s new is recre­at­ing sen­sa­tion us­ing this brain-con­trolled tech­nol­ogy. After all, proper mo­tion de­pends on more than mus­cle move­ment. Reach for some­thing and that sense of touch helps you nat­u­rally grasp with just enough force to hang on while not ei­ther drop­ping some­thing or crush­ing it. “It’s not only that emo­tional con­nec­tion we get,” said Robert Gaunt, a Pitts­burgh as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion who led the new study. “Peo­ple have an in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult time in­ter­act­ing with ob­jects, picking ob­jects up, ma­nip­u­lat­ing them, do­ing fairly ba­sic things with the hand if they don’t have a very ba­sic sense of touch.”

Step one is plac­ing sen­sors in pros­thet­ics. The next hur­dle is how to al­low feed­back to and from those sen­sors. For am­putees, some sci­en­tists are at­tempt­ing to wire nerves left in the re­main­ing part of the per­son’s nat­u­ral limb di­rectly to the robotic arm.

That’s not pos­si­ble if a spinal cord in­jury has in­ter­rupted the mes­sages that nor­mally flash be­tween the hand and the brain. But pre­vi­ous mon­key re­search had sug­gested brain im­plants could bridge that gap. So sur­geons at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh Med­i­cal Cen­ter im­planted elec­trodes in the part of Copeland’s brain that con­trols what his hands feel.

Elec­tri­cally stim­u­lat­ing those cells worked even though the car wreck that left Copeland mostly par­a­lyzed hap­pened over a decade ago, Gaunt noted. “This shows you can get nat­u­ral sen­sa­tion” through the brain im­plant, added Pitts­burgh neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist An­drew Schwartz.

—AP

PITTS­BURGH: Pres­i­dent Barack Obama holds a robotic arm be­ing con­trolled by the mind of the man in the wheel chair at right as he makes a stop at the exhibition hall of the White House Fron­tiers Con­fer­ence on Thurs­day, Oct. 13, 2016.

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