Scientists in Japan claim to have succeeded in controlling a humanoid robot with signals picked up in the US from a monkey's brain and transmitted across the internet.
The research, which represents a world's first according to the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), could be a first step toward giving doctors the ability to restore motor functions in severely paralysed patients. It can also contribute to the development of robots that move more like humans, JST said.
In the tests, scientists led by Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University in North Carolina trained two monkeys to walk on their legs on a treadmill. The activity of neurons in the leg area of the monkey's brain was recorded while the monkey walked and decoded into predictions of the position of their leg joints.
These predictions were then sent across the internet to Kyoto where they were used to control a robot. A live video signal of the robot was relayed back to the monkey to provide feedback.
The robot, called CBi for Computational Brain interface, is about the same size as a human at 155 centimetres tall and weighs 85kg. It has 51 degrees of freedom of motion and was developed by JST and Christopher Atkeson of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute to enable such neuroscience research. The hardware side of the robot was developed by robotics firm Sarcos.
The results of the work are groundbreaking, according to JST, although much remains to be done before it can be worked into something useful. As part of the ongoing research, the teams are looking at sending back more complex feedback to the brains of the monkeys.
In recent years, robotics researchers have been increasingly studying how to make the movements of robots more lifelike. Robots like Asimo, developed by car-maker Honda, are being positioned as future companion robots that could either work alongside humans or carry out tasks for them. One of the many issues that needs to be tackled before such a dream can be realised is increasing the mechanical complexity of the robot while simultaneously developing more advanced control systems.