In the Drift
Recently I’ve watched Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim and because I find mind controlled giant robots really fascinating and I did see some impressive real life examples where controlling technology with your mind can make a difference - which also pushed my geeky buttons - I thought about writing a piece in which to make a parallel between Sci Fi and reality on this subject.
The idea behind Pacific Rim’s mech control system isn’t really new. If you are the least bit familiar with Jpanese Anime movies, surely there would be some examples that would come to mind. The one that came to my mind when I watched Pacific Rim was Neon Genesis Evangelion, an anime series directed by Hideaki Anno in which the main story centers around Shinji, a teenage boy who is recruited by the shadowy organization NERV to pilot a giant bio-machine called an Evangelion in combat against monstrous beings known as Angels (see more in the Wikipedia description). If you haven’t already seen Evangelion, I would recommend you check it out. Any self respecting geek should see it :).
The Pacific Rim novelty for me was the idea of The Drift - a way to pilot the Jaeger bots in which two pilots would share the load of controlling the huge machines by each using half of their brain. This made the whole process of piloting the Jaegers, in order to fight the strange beasts called Kaiju, very difficult since the two pilots had to share a special connection in order to be able to drift with each other.
Well, it turns out that in this case such Sci Fi movie ideas inspired some of our best and brightest scientists to work on real life technology that can be used to control various real life items with your mind. For starters, an interesting example would be Emotiv’s EPOC EEG controller. This little piece of hardware can be placed on it’s user’s head and by scanning her brainwaves, can be used to control characters in a video game, for example. However, this is not the only application for which the EPOC can be used. I’ve seen some clips of people controlling their Lego Mindstorms NXT robot creations with it or DJ’s getting to do music once again after they had disabling events in their lives. It’s amazing what people can come up with when using such piece of thchnology and starting around 400$ you can also get your hands on it and try it out. Below, I’ll add a demo clip on how it is used to control characters in a video game. If you want more, I’m sure a quick search on YouTube will yield a lot of interesting examples on hot EPOC is used.
Another interesting application for this sort of thechnology, which resembles a bit more the above Sci Fi examples, is in the domain of medical research for exoskeletons that can help physically challenged people regain control over their lost motor functions. One such exoskeleton example would be HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) developed by Tsukuba University professor Yoshiyuki Sankai which comes in 2 versions: HAL 3 which only provides leg function and HAL 5 which is a full body exoskeleton. The purpose of this device would be to expand the physical abilities of it’s users whether they need to deal with heavy duty jobs such as construction work or wether they are physically impaired and need help to regain motor function. The principle on which this device works is by intercepting faint electrical signals sent from the brain to the muscles when a human tries to move, which leak through the skin. These signals are captured by HAL’s sensors and so it reads the intentions to mobr of it’s wearer. It assits movement by using AI algorithms specifically designed for the kind of motor enhancement it’s user needs. Checkout the below clip in which professor Sankai explains his motivation for creating HAL.
The final example I want to talk about gained a bit of a spotlight appearance and media coverage with this year’s World Cup beginning festivities. Indeed, I am talking about the Walk Again project led by Duke University professor Miguel Nicolelis. Professor Nicolelis lead some interesting research that involved implanting an array of electrodes into a monkey’s brain which allowed them to detect the monkey’s motor intent thus being able to control reaching and grasping movements performed by a robotic arm. This research was the basis for the exoskeleton used by a paraplegic man to make the first kick off at the starting ceremonies of this year’s World Cup. The BMI (brain-machine interface) developed by the team of scientists led by professor Nicolelis played a key part in this achievement by allowing it’s user to project his moving intents to the exoskeleton which sustained his body. Below is some of the coverage footage this moment got at the World Cup.
I think these are certainly some notewotrhy examples of brain controlled technology that made their way from the Silver Screen into reality. Certainly there are more such Sci Fi inspired examples and certainly they still have some work to do before they become available and helpful in our daily lives, but I do think they are a step in the right direction. I can’t help but admire the men and women pouring their passion and research into making the kind of technology that can enhance us human beings and I think that we live in an exciting time when we as humans begin to take hold of our own evolution. I just hope we’re prepared and got wise enough to handle the moral challenges that are ahead of us.