Chi­nese sci­en­tists pon­der po­ten­tial for ex­oskele­tons

The China Post - - ARTS - BY CHENG YINGQI

Iron Man’s suit in the movies may look cooler than the real-life ver­sion.

In the U.S. movie Iron Man, busi­ness­man Tony Stark de­vel­ops a ro­botic suit that gave him in­ex­haustible power to fight the bad guys.

The re­al­ity of the suit, how­ever, was that it was so heavy and un­wieldy that even ac­tor Don Chea­dle in Iron Man 3 com­plained that it was “not re­ally cool at all” to play a su­per­hero in the suit.

Now Chi­nese sci­en­tists are de­vel­op­ing a flex­i­ble and con­trol­lable ex­oskele­ton that moves as nim­bly as a mind con­trols its limbs.

Sci­en­tists from the In­sti­tute of Ad­vanced Man­u­fac­tur­ing Tech­nol­ogy in Changzhou, Jiangsu re­cently com­pleted an ex­oskele­ton that can help peo­ple climb moun­tains with 30 kilo­grams of gear or punch through a wall with­out break­ing a sweat.

The ex­oskele­ton, which has nei­ther the bright red color nor the cool ap­pear­ance of the Iron Man suit, looks more like an iron skele­ton with a bevy of sen­sors and elec­tric wires. When worn, its sen­sors catch ev­ery move’s neu­ro­mus­cu­lar sig­nals and re­spond with the right ac­tion.

“The po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tion of the ex­oskele­ton is wide,” said Wang Yucheng, an as­sis­tant re­searcher at the In­sti­tute of Ad­vanced Man­u­fac­tur­ing Tech­nol­ogy. The in­sti­tute, a unit of the He­fei In­sti­tutes of Phys­i­cal Science at the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences, fo­cuses on ro­bot­ics and in­tel­li­gent man­u­fac­tur­ing.

At a Brain-Inspired In­tel­li­gence Fo­rum in June, Tan Tie­niu, deputy sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences, said, “Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence will bring us into the sec­ond ma­chine age — an age fea­tur­ing ex­po­nen­tial growth, dig­i­ti­za­tion and com­bined in­no­va­tion.”

One of the uses of such an ex­oskele­ton is to in­crease the fight­ing ca­pac­ity of an in­di­vid­ual soldier. For ex­am­ple, the Ro­bot­ics & Hu­man En­gi­neer­ing Lab­o­ra­tory at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, in the United States has been re­search­ing ex­oskele­tons since early 2000, and has de­vel­oped a range of prod­ucts for mil­i­tary use. The Hu­man Uni­ver­sal Load Car­rier can carry up to 90 kilo­grams while the wearer feels no load, for ex­am­ple, and the Ex­oHiker can en­able the wearer to carry a 68-kilo­gram load and walk for 21 hours.

Be­sides mil­i­tary uses, su­per­man abil­i­ties also are de­sired in emer­gency sit­u­a­tions such as fire fight­ing and earth­quake res­cues. “For ex­am­ple, if a fire­fighter runs into a burn­ing build­ing with an ex­oskele­ton, he or she can carry out two or more peo­ple who passed out due to the smoke, in­stead of car­ry­ing out one and head­ing into the dan­ger again,” Wang said.

Ex­oskele­tons also can help some dis­abled peo­ple walk or make move­ments, such as kick­ing a ball. At the open­ing cer­e­mony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, 29-year-old para­plegic Ju­liano Pinto kicked a soc­cer ball to start the games with the help of a mind-con­trolled ex­oskele­ton.

“The mind-con­trolled ex­oskele­ton, with an elec­trode cap like that used on the World Cup open­ing cer­e­mony, re­acts faster than the neu­ro­mus­cu­lar-sen­sa­tion ex­oskele­tons like ours,” Wang said.

When a per­son wants to make a cer­tain move­ment, the elec­trode cap reads the change of his or her brain wave and makes the move­ment al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The neu­ro­mus­cu­lar sen­sors, on the other hand, can only feel the body’s move­ment when the ac­tion starts, so they re­act slower.

Sci­en­tists at the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences are co­op­er­at­ing with ex­perts from the Na­tional Univer­sity of De­fense Tech­nol­ogy to de­velop mind-con­trol ex­oskele­tons. The tech­nol­ogy has been tried on in­tel­li­gent cars that can start, stop, make turns and drive at 5 to 10 kilo­me­ters per hour un­der mind con­trol.

Mind-con­trolled ma­chines are noth­ing new in the neu­ro­science field. Re­search on brain-com­puter in­ter­faces be­gan at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les, in the 1970s. In 1998, re­searchers at Emory Univer­sity in At­lanta im­planted a de­vice on a pa­tient with locked-in syn­drome — a con­di­tion in which only the eyes can move — that helped him move a com­puter cur­sor.

More re­cently, re­searchers from Brown Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Pittsburgh Med­i­cal Cen­ter suc­ceeded in en­abling brain- con­trolled ro­botic pros­thetic limbs on par­a­lyzed pa­tients in 2012.

As suc­cesses mount, gov­ern­ments are pour­ing more money into the tech­nol­ogy.

In April 2013, U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama an­nounced the BRAIN Ini­tia­tive, or Brain Re­search through Ad­vanc­ing In­no­va­tive Neu­rotech­nolo­gies, with US$100 mil­lion bud­get to map the hu­man brain. The Euro­pean Union’s Hori­zon 2020, the big­gest EU re­search and in­no­va­tion pro­gram, also tar­gets brain re­search.

China in­cluded the brain and cog­ni­tive science as one of the eight re­search fields in the na­tional long-term science and tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment plan through 2020. And ex­perts had dis­closed ear­lier this year that the main­land China author­i­ties would pub­lish the coun­try’s brain pro­ject shortly.

“Re­search into brain-inspired in­tel­li­gence has been in­cluded in the de­vel­op­ment strate­gies of ma­jor de­vel­oped coun­tries. China should boost the de­vel­op­ment of AI to seize the com­mand­ing heights of the new round of tech­no­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion,” Tan said.

While peo­ple can use their minds to con­trol some ex­ter­nal de­vices, ma­chines do not yet un­der­stand hu­man thoughts, said Yang Zhi, a re­searcher on cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science at the In­sti­tute of Psy­chol­ogy, Chi­nese Academy of Science.

“Some of the mind- con­trol tech­nolo­gies are ac­tu­ally us­ing the re­ac­tions of peo­ple’s brain ac­tiv­ity — such as neu­ro­mus­cu­lar sig­nals and move­ment of eye­balls — to con­trol the ex­ter­nal de­vices, while we still un­der­stand lit­tle about what kind of thoughts peo­ple may hold in their mind when they have a cer­tain kind of brain ac­tiv­ity and the cor­re­sponded re­ac­tions,” Yang said.

Yang and his team have been study­ing that re­la­tion by an­a­lyz­ing a data­base that con­tains more than 5,000 brain mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing scans rel­e­vant to peo­ple’s emo­tions and thoughts.

Re­cently the team found that ac­tiv­i­ties of cer­tain brain re­gions are re­lated to peo­ple’s an­swers to yes-or-no ques­tions.

“For ex­am­ple, if I ask you if one minute equals 100 sec­onds — ap­par­ently the an­swer is no — a cer­tain re­gion in your brain will be ac­tive, so that I will learn what your real idea is, no mat­ter what you say to me,” Yang said.

The tech­nol­ogy has been used to test the brain ac­tiv­ity of pa­tients in a veg­e­ta­tive state to de­tect their re­sponses to ques­tions like: Can you feel the pain?

Con­nect­ing thought to cor­re­spond­ing brain ac­tiv­ity is key to ex­pand­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion of mind con­trol, Yang said.

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