Feb 092009
Authors: Madeline Novey, Ariel SenaCalvillo

The classic sci-fi author’s proliferation of robots assisting humans was made a reality Monday morning as José Del R. Millán explained his research and creation of brain-controlled robots to about 50 scientists, professors and students.

What started first as a keyboard controlled by brainwaves has evolved into Millán’s creation of a wheel chair designed to receive and interpret the rider’s directional thoughts and move in the requested directions.

“The main thing is to help physically handicapped people,” Millán said, explaining that the technology best aids people with sever physical disabilities like Muscular Dystrophy.

The earliest of Millán’s robots using the same brain-controlled technology was a virtual keyboard and computer game — an early 1990s project dubbed 98-01 ABI– that would “type” whatever the user thought.

It was at this time Millán started to experiment with placing flat pads — known as nodes or non-invasive electroencephalograms — directly on the surface of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for thought, memory and perceptual awareness.

The nodes are designed to interact and communicate with a person’s brainwaves to an outside stimulus –/in this case, to between seven and 12 nodes positioned on a cap worn by the user. The information received by the cap is then communicated to the machine’s robot, which moves accordingly.

Several years ago, after deciding the technology was sensitive enough for wheelchair application, Millán, a professor at Switzerland Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, and his team built the first MAIA 04-07 prototype designed to navigate based on user needs.

When designing each wheelchair, Millán’s team conducts a series of tests to analyze the individual’s brainwaves and, based on the data, programs the robot to react to three physical movements: from a finger or hand twitch to a specific facial movement.

The greatest challenge, Millán said, is trying to convince observers that “it is the person driving the program” and not the robot driving by a pre-determined set of directions.

The team’s future goal is to make the program more sensitive and quicker to react to brainwave commands.

Gain Philips, a University of Colorado scientist who works in a lab to improve technology for people with physical disabilities, supported Millán’s research.

“I work with a lot of people with a lot of different disabilities,” he said of his interactions with quadrapalegics, people with Multiple Sclerosis and those who cannot speak in addition to their physical disabilities. He further explained that brain-controlled wheelchairs are an advantageous substitute for voice-controlled wheelchairs in this situation.

H.J. Siegel, professor of computer engineering and director of The Information Science & Technology Center at CSU, the program responsible for hosting the ISTeC Distinguished Lecturers series, said Millán’s presentation served two higher purposes.

“(Millán’s work) was very inspirational and showed our students and faculty how beneficial our high-tech research can be,” Siegal said. He added, “This prompts students and faculty to communicate with each other and work together . to be able to do what (Millán) is doing.”

Siegal said Millán’s work is characterized by contributions from experts across a range of scientific fields and that this idea is necessary for the success of CSU students and faculty.

“I think that it’s so important to get people from different backgrounds and different departments working together so that they can bring all of those areas of expertise together,” he said.

Assistant News Editor Madeline Novey can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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