How Mind-Controlled Robot Suits Could Enhance Our Limbs

May 9, 2019
Originally published on August 27, 2019 9:11 am

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Thoughts can control machines in more and more intricate ways.

In Episode 2 of Future You with Elise Hu, we explore mind-controlled robot suits and how they could end some disabilities as we know them or let able-bodied people gain super strength.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but using brain signals to control machines is not only possible — it's improving fast. Just within the past few years, researchers have figured out how to let paralyzed people walk in a robotic bodysuit, or exoskeleton, simply by thinking about it. The promise here means that in the future, millions of people who are paralyzed or don't have mobility in their limbs might be able to regain it — that is, if the technology becomes accessible.

"The exoskeletons will improve — it's inevitable," says University of Houston researcher Atilla Kilicarslan.

When they do improve, what then? Where will humans end and machines begin? Explore the future of the human body along with us. Follow this series on YouTube and npr.org/futureyou, and send in your ideas about upgrading humans by email or through Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right, picture yourself inside a robotic suit, one that lets you pick up, say, huge heavy objects, just like a superhero. This is really a thing. Robotic exoskeletons, as they're called, are being used on the floor of hardware stores, also other places like that, so workers can lift heavier loads, and they're controlled by those workers' movements. But the more advanced exoskeletons, well, they're controlled by the mind, and they can help paralyzed people, even children, walk.

NPR's Elise Hu has been checking all this out for her video series Future You, about how emerging technologies could change life as we know it. And Elise is back with us. Hey, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Just to be clear - this kind of stuff I'm talking about, this exists today?

HU: Yeah. And the most promising ones of these exoskeletons are powered with thought control, as you mentioned, which means folks who are paralyzed from the waist down or even the neck down have been fitted for exoskeletons that let them use their minds to move robot arms or legs. We've actually all seen this. We saw a paralyzed man walk on the field in a robot suit to kick the opening ball at the 2014 World Cup.

GREENE: Wow. That's incredible.

HU: Yeah. The suits we're talking about here are powered by something I've been studying - brain-machine interfaces. They are computers wired to our brains, and they can read neurological signals to tell the robot limbs what to do. Research on this has been going on worldwide. And I went to the University of Houston in Texas to try out the exoskeletons there.

Here we are.

ATILLA KILICARSLAN: OK. So I'm going to ask you to lean forward a little bit, OK?

HU: What's so cool about the work going on there in Houston is the scientists are focused on pediatric exoskeletons. So I am not who this experiment would be aimed at; it's actually aimed at helping paralyzed kids stand up and walk.

GREENE: What a cool thing.

HU: Yeah.

GREENE: I mean, you got an idea of what it's like for them to be in a robotic suit or what the experience is like to be wearing something that's actually reading your brain.

HU: Right. And if you've seen some of my videos testing this kind of technology, you've seen me wear kind of a swim cap with sensors all over it.

GREENE: It did look like that, yeah.

HU: (Laughter) And that's what this uses.

GREENE: So what is the science here? How is this actually working?

HU: The University of Houston researcher there, Atilla Kilicarslan, he worked with me. And what he did is he fit my body into a heavy, metallic robot suit.

Whoa.

And then my head's connected to electrodes, and the wires are connected to a computer. So I'm not exactly very nimble in this suit.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: But from there, I had to learn to stop when I heard there was a beep or then walk when I heard the next beep.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

HU: I did it.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: Feels like a superpower.

GREENE: I mean, it must feel like a superpower if this thing is reading your brain impulses. I mean, where does this technology go?

HU: Lots of possibilities for human augmentation. And what I mean by this is, it all started on soldiers, trying to help soldiers in the field carry larger loads, move faster. And now the technology behind it is being applied to medicine, to rehab, to construction. The researcher there in Houston, Kilicarslan, put it to me this way.

KILICARSLAN: If you're a firefighter and if you need to lift something really heavy and save lives, then why not? By all means, go ahead and, you know, augment the human capability there.

HU: This idea of super strength isn't something that the University of Houston team is working on; they are working on those pediatric exoskeletons. But this has been looked at by the Defense Department and its research arm, DARPA.

GREENE: I mean, I'm not joking here. It sounds like we could all start becoming, like, cyborgs if we use this kind of thing. And does that start to raise questions about where the line is?

HU: It absolutely does, and it's actually something that philosophers and ethicists are debating right now. And one of the big worries when I report on this is lethality. One of the fathers of brain-machine interfaces talked with me and said he doesn't want to see military uses of these mind-controlled robot suits because he's worried about how it could be used to help humans kill each other.

GREENE: And you and I have talked about this in your series, I mean, when technology goes too far. It's like, it's great if it's helping people who are paralyzed walk, but what if private businesses, what if the government gets control of stuff like this and uses it for the wrong reasons?

HU: Right, and these are a lot of the questions that are being worked out and debated now. Right now, though, the near-term promises to get paralyzed patients back on their feet again, that is keeping scientists funded and hopeful. And with all of this human augmentation technology we've been exploring, it is worthwhile, though, to consider the implications that you're talking about.

GREENE: Elise, it's always interesting stuff. Elise Hu is in Culver City, Calif., at NPR West. And we really appreciate it.

HU: Thank you.

GREENE: And that is part of NPR's monthly original video series, Future You with Elise Hu. And you can see those robot legs in action on NPR's YouTube channel or by going to npr.org/futureyou.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKINNY WILLIAMS & STEPHEN GOODSON'S "POP STAR EXPLOSION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.