Brazil is playing host to what’s expected to become the most widely-witnessed scientific experiment in human history, when on June 12th an estimated one billion people will watch a live demonstration of an as-yet unproven technology that blends robotics with neuroscience, in a spectacle reminiscent of James Cameron’s Avatar movie.
On this day a paralysed Brazilian teenager wearing a synthetic exoskeleton commanded by electrodes connected to his brain – one of eight currently training for the part – will rise from his wheelchair and walk unaided to the centre of a football stadium in São Paulo to kick off the 2014 World Cup, watched by soccer fans all over the planet.
That kick – if it works – is dividing those who believe it is a hubristic stunt master-minded by an over-ambitious scientist, and those confident the Walk Again Project will bring real hope to millions of paraplegics by breaking boundaries between brain and machine. It will prove that thought alone can command mechanical devices to carry out the work of the human body in cases where the spinal cord has been ruptured.
Whatever happens, it is already putting Brazilian scientific prowess on the world media map and raising the profile of controversial Brazilian systems neurophysiologist Dr. Miguel Angelo Laporta Nicolelis. He enjoys rock star status in the neuroscience community and is getting financial support from the Brazilian government, while at the same time raising some critical eyebrows in his native country.
Divisive, bombastic yet undeniably brilliant, Nicolelis resembles the fictional character Professor Challenger in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, a 1912 tale coincidentally set in Brazil. In the story Challenger silences scientific opinion by bringing a live pterodactyl back to London – an act perhaps comparable with enabling paraplegics to walk. (Conan Doyle’s other better-known fictional creation was Sherlock Holmes).
No wonder, then, that Nicolelis is fond of comparing the significance of his own work to NASA’s 1969 Moonwalk.
From his US base at Duke University Centre for Neuroengineering, Nicolelis has pulled together an international consortium that includes universities in Munich, Lausanne, California, Kentucky and from Natal in Brazil.
The World Cup kickoff using a mind-controlled prosthesis or “robot suit” partly enclosing the crippled teenager, is certainly a technical tour de force. It combines motorized metal braces, gyroscope stabilisers, and pressure sensors — commanded by German-made sensors that relay a feeling of pressure when each foot touches the ground. And all this connected to brain implants that allow the kicker to translate thoughts into actions.
For over a decade, Nicolelis has been using the media and conferences like TEDMED to advance his theories that computer-based technologies can serve as an effective intermediary between brain activity and mechanical devices. Working with rats, monkeys and now humans, Nicolelis has conducted a series of elegantly-conceived experiments designed to capture mammalian “brain symphonies” representing intention, and to translate those intentions into mechanical action — either remotely in other animals, or through machines.
A decade ago Dr. Nicolelis and his team at Duke implanted electrode arrays into a monkey’s brain to detect the monkey’s motor intent, with the aim of controlling reaching and grasping movements performed by a robotic arm.
As the monkey played with a hand-held joystick to move a shape in a video game, signals were sent to the robot arm, which was subsequently able to mimic the monkey’s movements and thus controlled the game. After a while the monkey realised that thinking about moving the shape was enough and it no longer needed to move the joystick.
In early 2008, Dr. Nicolelis’s lab saw a monkey implanted with a new BCI successfully control a robot walking on a treadmill in Kyoto, Japan. The monkey could see the robot, named CB, on a screen in front of him, and was rewarded for walking in sync with the robot (which was under the control of the monkey).
In 2013 Nicolelis and others showed brain-to-brain communication between two rats using brain–computer interfaces. He used electronic sensors to capture the thoughts of a rat in a lab in Brazil and sent via Internet to the brain of a rat in the United States. The second rat received the thoughts of the first, mimicking its behaviour. This result may demonstrate the feasibility of a biological computer consisting of a network of animal, or human, brains.
In parallel to Nicolelis’ work, scientists at the University of Washington in August 2013 achieved what they called the first “human-to-human mind meld.”
Opinion leaders are divided on their views of this research. The science is certainly invasive and raises dystopian visions of mind control. Yet the prize is substantial if those paralysed since birth or by accident (there are an estimated 250,000 in the US alone) could look forward to an independent future.
Nor, of course, is Nicolelis alone in the field of exoskeleton research. Iron Man style “Body Extenders” and “Hulk” look-alikes are being developed for military uses to allow infantrymen to carry heavier weights into battle. One project, the ReWalk exoskeleton, is designed for remedial and orthopaedic functions.
All eyes are on Brazil as the World Cup host, and five-times champion whose team will hope to lift the trophy a record sixth time on July 13th. Whatever the final score, and whatever the quality and intent of the science being exhibited at the tournament’s kickoff, this experiment will show that the frontier of mind and machine has changed.
And perhaps, what until now could until now only be glimpsed through Avatar, the film director’s fantasy, will become fact.