A Mind-reading exoskeleton lets a completely paralyzed man walk
This is a great example of how technology can be used for the good of mankind
With so much debate around the ethical use of technology, news like this certainly provides hope for the future. I personally believe technology will provide the biggest breakthroughs in the Healthcare industry and this is just another example of that happening. A 30-year-old Frenchman named Thibault, who was paralyzed from the shoulders down was able to walk in the controlled environment of a lab in an exoskeleton suit. For someone who hasn’t been able to walk for the four two years due to a spinal injury, imagine the emotions he must have gone through when he took that first small step.
Earlier, I had written about a couple of other mind-reading devices already in the making. The first one is an invasive device by Neuralink where designed fine threads will be implanted the human to read the activity of neurons and thus enable the person to communicate with machines. While the second one is a non-invasive wearable device by Facebook that would let people type by simply imagining themselves talking.
Both these devices can be used for real-life applications in the future, however, a lot of people remain skeptical since they are being developed by for-profit companies whose eventual motive is making money. But the innovation we are talking about today is a 65kg of sophisticated robotics suit that was developed by Clinatec and the University of Grenoble.
The trial that started in 2017 when Thibault started using the brain implants to control virtual characters in a computer simulation before moving on to walking in the actual suit. The whole process took many months of training before he could actually use the brain-controlled device finally.
It all started off with Thibault having surgery to place two implants containing 64 electrodes on parts of the brain that controlled the movement. These electrodes used advanced computer software to read the brain waves and convert them into machine instructions used to control the exoskeleton. The final step involved strapping him into the robotic suit, which enabled him to use all four of his limbs.
“We have solved the problem and shown the principle is correct. This is proof we can extend the mobility of patients in an exoskeleton. This is in [the] direction of giving a better quality of life.” ~ Prof Alim-Louis Benabid, President of the Clinatec executive board
All he had to do was to think “walk” — which set off a chain of movements enabling him to walk & also used his arms in three-dimensional space. Of course, the technology used here is by no means perfect. It comes with its own set of limitations.
- The exoskeleton can only be used indoors right now since the suit needs to be strapped to a ceiling-harness to minimize the risk of falling.
- To have proper control over the system, there is also a time limitation of 350 milliseconds from the thought to the movement.
- Currently only using 32 of the 64 implanted electrodes, due to limited processing capacity, there is room for improving the reading of the brain activity with more powerful computers & advanced AI algorithms.
Despite all the shortcomings, this is a revolutionary first step in the direction of futuristic Healthcare applications. The researchers intend to add finger control later to allow Thibault to pick up & move objects.
On the other side of the spectrum, scientists are also using exoskeletons to enhance human abilities — something called transhumanism. An example of this is the Pentagon using the skeletons to create ‘super-soldiers.’ I guess as long as the technology is out there, there would always be this danger of it being used for sinister purposes.
Should it stop us from using technology for the collective good? I don’t believe so.
The detailed study was published in The Lancet Neurology journal.