Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology today used a head cap to record brain signals coming from Mark-Andre Duc, a paralyzed man who was in a Swiss hospital in the town of Sion, fully 100 miles from the Institute in Lausanne. Essentially, Duc imagined himself moving, much like non-paralyzed people do when they actually move, and the impulses were transmitted back to the robot, which performed the motions that the robot carried out.
Duc described the process of controlling the robot as being comparatively easy on a good day, but on days when he's in pain, being somewhat more difficult. Considering that the robot's operation depends on mental focus to receive generated instructions, this isn't surprising.
Worse yet, so-called “background noise” caused by pain or even by distraction can impede the robot's controls, which led to a new way of programming the robot that makes it work much the same way the human brain's subconscious does: a command is issued, and the robot maintains that command until a command is received to stop, or the robot encounters something that would prevent it from executing said command like an obstacle.
Thus, the robot is no longer required to continually receive the command “walk forward” in order to walk forward; rather, it receives the command, and then continues to walk until it receives the command to stop walking.
Telepresence robots have been in use—limited use, admittedly, but use nonetheless—to provide people a way to combine video conferencing with a kind of robotic avatar to provide a way to “be there” more fully than a face on a screen would imply. Admittedly, the attendance factor of a telepresence robot is more symbolic than authentic, but for the paralyzed, or the people who want to attend events but are limited by geography or resources, they may well be the next best thing.
Commercial release of such a system is still a ways off, but researchers suggest that a system could be employed in “a matter of years,” meaning movies like Surrogates may be closer to reality than anyone expected.