The ability to control robots with your mind is no longer the stuff of science fiction: scientists from MIT and Boston University devised a system that allows robots to interpret simple brain waves.
The technique is called electroencephalography (EEG), and it's been used before, but never in a closed-loop, real-time environment. That is, the scientists were able to get a robot to react to human brain waves and change their course of action nearly instantaneously.
They programmed the robots to perform a simple sorting task. If a robot started to place an object onto one target that should have been placed in the other target, a human observer was asked to "mentally disagree" with the robot's choice. That human response would create brain signals known as error-related potentials, which the robot could receive and interpret via its connection to an EEG cap the human was wearing.
The main goal was to alter the robot's choice before it completed its task, a real-time error correction that hadn't been achieved before, according to the researchers. While they achieved that goal, they weren't able to get the robot to second-guess a signal in real time: error-related potentials are weak signals, so sometimes the robots were confused.
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Still, the researchers said their work could significantly reshape human-robot interactions, assuming the robots learn to second-guess.
"If this signal could be leveraged to facilitate human-robot control even in a restricted class of situations, it would enable many new applications of natural human-robot collaboration," they wrote in a paper published on Monday. "For example, humans could remotely supervise robots on factory floors and communicate 'stop' instantaneously when the robot makes a mistake without needing to type a command or push a button."