The ceremonial first kick of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will be made by a paralyzed volunteer from the Association of Assistance to Disabled Children wearing a robotic exoskeleton that the user will be controlling with his or her mind.
The volunteer will wear electroencephalographic (EEG) headgear attached to a backpack computer that will translate their brainwave activity into commands that the robotic exoskeleton can understand. The exoskeleton will then send signals back to the computer and, through it, to the volunteer’s brain, providing them with a restored sensation of walking.
The demonstration is not meant to present finished research or sell a particular company’s technological innovation, but to introduce the world to the Walk Again Project, “a worldwide network of neuroscientists [who] intend to showcase the amazing power that a partnership between modern neuroscience and the leading edge of the computer industry could unleash in coming years.” This consortium of over 150 neuroscientists and engineers hopes to use the world stage to “inspire” more research into brain machine interfaces (BMI).
“I spend my life chasing the storms that emanate from the hundreds of billions of cells that inhabit our brains,” one of the founders of the Walk Again Project, Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, told The Verge. “What we want to do is listen to these brain symphonies and try to extract them from the messages they carry.”
In 2000, Dr. Nicolelis and his team at the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University taught primates to control robotic arms using only their thoughts. They also wired the brain of a monkey with microelectrodes and had it walk on a treadmill. They sent the recorded signals emanating from the monkey’s brain to a robot in Japan, thereby allowing it to also walk on a treadmill.
The problems faced by researchers at the Walk Again Project is that invasive surgery was required to wire these primates’ brain, and that they were not paralyzed during the experiments. The monkey on the treadmill actually walked on the treadmill, so the signals being recorded were based on lived experience. In patients who are paralyzed, the subconscious routines required for bipedal locomotion had atrophied — in effect, they did not “remember” how to walk.
So the researchers immersed the volunteers in a virtual reality that allowed them to reacquire their sense of their own body — the so-called “sixth” sense, proprioception.
“The brain is a remarkable instrument,” Dr. Craig Henriquez told The Verge. “It has the ability to rewire itself, to create new connections. That’s what gives the BMI paradigm its power. You are not limited just by what you can physically engineer, because the brain evolves to better suit the interface.”
The Walk Again Project has not released the identity of the volunteer who will make the ceremonial first kick, but only because they have not decided which of the eight test subjects is most comfortable in the suit yet. When asked, Dr. Nicolelis joked that the final decision will probably be made when the exoskeleton is completed, about “thirty minutes before” the opening kick.
Watch a demonstration of how the technology works via The Verge below.
Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.
Raw Story is a progressive news site that focuses on stories often ignored in the mainstream media. While giving coverage to the big stories of the day, we also bring our readers' attention to policy, politics, legal and human rights stories that get ignored in an infotainment culture driven solely by pageviews.
Founded in 2004, Raw Story reaches 9 million unique readers per month and serves more than 30 million pageviews.