Monday, 21 March 2011

Japanese Robot Controlled by Human Brain Signals

The Japanese continue to ’shock and awe’ with their amazingly innovative and creative applications in the world of robotics. On Tuesday Honda’s Research Institute and the precision-equipment manufacturer Shimadzu announced a new technology that will enable a human to steer a robot merely by thought. This represents the start of a major paradigm shift in the field of robotics, as the days of controlling them by remote or wireless links may soon be over. The system is comprised of a BMI (Brain Machine Interface, or BCI, Brain Computer Interface) that involves a sensor-net helmet that detects electrical signals (EEG, or electroencephalography) on the scalp; and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) sensors that detect changes in cerebral blood flow; both measures alter slightly during the human thought process. The BMI device is designed for compatibility with Honda’s star robot, ASIMO, billed as the world’s most advanced humanoid robot, which has gained significant global notoriety since its release almost a decade ago.

The correspondence between the BMI device and ASIMO is impressive. In a demonstration video shown Tuesday at Honda’s Tokyo headquarters, one sees a human subject fitted with the black BMI helmet and then shown a card with a picture of a right hand on it. After the user makes the correlation between the picture and his own right hand, a large computer analyzes the brain signals on a real-time basis and compares them to previous known samples. Once the computer makes a determination of what the user imagined, it then transmits the signal wirelessly to ASIMO, which acknowledges the request and raises its own right robotic limb. Asimo responds by saying (in Japanese), “Yes. I received the result. I think this is correct. It is ‘Right Hand’.” And then Asimo begins its choreographed move to mimic the signal by raising the right hand. The state-of-the-art technology enables the humanoid to perform a series of movments, such as raising and lowering its arms, walking, and eating, all based on the non-verbal instructions a person sends to it by concentrating on performing the action themselves.

Brain Machine Interface Video | ASIMO

According to an AP report, Honda acknowledges that this BMI-humanoid technology is not yet ready for a live demonstration because of possible distractions that cameras and an audience could cause in the human controller’s thought processes. Another problem is that brain patterns differ greatly among individuals, and so at this point about two to three hours of pre-test analysis is necessary in order for the BMI technology to work. One of the scientists involved, Tatsuya Okabe of the Honda Research Institute Japan, pointed out that “the accuracy of a movement depends on the test person and whether that person is good at concentrating.” But in test cases so far ASIMO has performed extremely well, with BMI motions performed correctly in 90.6 percent of cases –a record in the field of BMI technology.
The research aims of this technological breakthrough are very practical. Imagine being able to think about an action and having a wirelessly controlled robot transmit that thought into action, for instance with house-keeping chores such as serving dishes or watering plants. The research could have special significance for those who are disabled or unable to perform strenuous tasks in the home. “What we are doing is still basic research, but we are working on the dream of commercialising it,” said Yasuhisa Arai, president of the Honda Research Institute. “But there is still a very long way to go before commercialisation.”
Japan’s successful interface between BMI technology and a humanoid displays again the country’s absolute dominance in the field of advanced robotics, and serves as a powerful “signal” of its own commitment to helping create a more tolerable, humane world. The United States, on the other hand, has ignored large-scale humanoid robots, except as fodder for sci-fi films which usually portray them in some kind of gloomy, post-apocalyptic role. Suffice it to say, the technological creations of a country are often a good depiction of its national character. The sociological study of robotics is in the early stages and so it’s perhaps too early to extract cross-cultural views about perceived differences between a mind-reading humanoid that can clean the house and take out the trash, and a robotic drone that looks for terrorist bombs. But for Japan, this much seems certain—a BMI-controlled ASIMO offers a new cosmopolitan spotlight on itself: how to turn “thoughts” for a better and brighter future into positive, realistic actions.

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