Know your science: the future of brain controlled prosthetics could be for everyone

You probably know about, or maybe have even followed, the Paralympics but have you heard of the Cybathlon? This is the brainchild of ETH Zurich and Professor in NCCR Robotics, Robert Reiner, that aims to facilitate a discussion between technology developers and people with disabilities while promoting the use of ‘robotic assistive aids’ to the general public.

The first Cybathlon took place last year in Switzerland and although it may look to outsiders much like the Paralympics, there are no professional athletes that take part. Although all of the competitors struggle with some degree of disability albeit paralysis, amputation or restricted movement, the ongoing aim of the Cybathlon is to demonstrate how advanced prosthetics can work for everyone. The competition includes six disciplines, such as the powered exoskeleton race, the arm prosthesis race and a brain-controlled computer game as well as challenges that prosthesis users face in the everyday such as climbing stairs or opening a jar.

In 2015 Dr Aldo Faisal, a senior lecturer in Neurotechnology at Imperial College London, was contacted by Cybathlon organisers to see if he and his students were interested in taking park. Faisal’s research focuses on understanding the processes that the brain uses to control movement and applying this to prosthetics that will bypass the arduous learning stage that patients fitted with cybernetic limbs must experience. He and his team of students, researchers and engineers, took home a silver medal in the functional electronic simulation bike race
and one of his students, Kevin Evison (pictured in the video below) made it to the final stage of the powered arm prosthesis race. Dr Faisal praised the Cybathlon for it’s inclusion of those with high-end disabilities and it’s “promotion of new-assistive technologies.” 

Faisal aims to reverse engineer the algorithms our brain goes through to determine movement. Explaining the functionality of current standard prosthetics he says “if you have standard prosthetics and you want to grab a cup, then you need to concentrate and send brain impulses to your prosthetic hand, so it rotates right by 30 degrees and opens the hand by 4cm, and then you have to think about how each finger closes around them and so forth.” With a brain-computer interface, this movement would work on a more cognitive level, as it does with our own limbs, so that users would not need to send these brain impulses and instead the intelligence of the machine would take care of it.

Kevin is an experienced prosthesis user who, losing his arm during his 20’s, now has what he considers “the Rolls-Royce of prosthetics” explaining, “with the old versions I could just contract the first two fingers together. With this I can type, I can use a mouse, I can, to the frequent surprise of waiters, cut up a steak.”  His Bebionic arm (currently the world’s most advanced) allows him to turn is wrist 360 degrees which, although may seem unnecessary, shows how science is blurring the boundary between restoration and augmentation.

Of course, certain obstacles still stand in the way of Faisal and his team, such as the best way to adapt the prosthetics so that patients “don’t have to learn to operate [their] prosthetic; they just use it intuitively.” Also, unless users are happy with plugging their limb in to charge, these prosthetics must carry their power internally which could come as a challenge. Nevertheless, Faisal’s work in the past has been groundbreaking. He created an interface that allowed wheelchair bound users to control a video game by navigating around obstacles simply by looking at the track they wished to take. More of his work has seen the advancement of myoelectric technology (which is used to translate muscle signals to movement in artificial limbs) via the process of recording muscle vibrations with microphones. This technology proved much cheaper and effective than that previously.

This technology isn’t all about the creation of devices for disabled patients, however. The creations flying out of Faisal’s lab are so advanced, and require no surgical implants, that he imagines there will be a market for able-bodied consumers interested in augmentation devices. In recent years, scientists and researchers have delved deeper and deeper into the field of super-sensory augmentation which links in with the ever-growing interest in Bionics. This vision of a robotic future is something that Faisal links with our acceptance of a lack of privacy, explaining “If it continues… you’re going to live in a space – in a city and a country – that is aware of you, and can predict your future actions based on the data it has collected about you, to make your life easier. You would probably see advertising that’s targeted to you – not just [to your tastes], but at the right moment, catching the right moodswing to entice you to shop. You’re going to have to think less about what you want to do, but just say, ‘Yes, OK, yes, OK,’ as proposals [made by your wearables] become much better.”

Patients such as Kevin Evison are proof that this technology can work, so maybe these fantastical implications made by Faisal and so many like him aren’t as far into the future as we may have previously imagined.



About the Author

Helen is a Digital Copywriter at Precise English, a copywriting and marketing agency based in the UK.