Brain-controlled computer bypasses spine to help paraplegics walk

Researchers have developed a system that will allow those with spinal cord injuries to walk again – by using a computer to communicate from the brain to the base of the spine.

The man in the video below is walking thanks to a computer interface and magnets, which sense movements in his arms and allow him to move towards the football and kick it. By swinging his arm he causes his legs to move.

Although researchers, from the National Institute of Natural Science, said there is a long way to go before the technology may be used clinically, they were able to manipulate an area of the spinal cord so it could be possible create a connection to the locomotion centre in the base of the spinal cord.

The developments may mean it is possible for those who live with paraplegia, or who have been involved in accidents where areas of their spinal cord have been damaged, to be able to move their limbs even though the brain may not be able to communicate with the relevant area of the spinal cord.

The research group made an artificial connection from the brain to the spinal cord using a computer interface.

They were successful because the neural networks in the spinal cord are able of producing rhythmic movements, such as walking or swimming-like movements, even when they are not connected to the brain.

This allowed the researchers to stimulate the legs to be able to kick a football by the subject moving their arm.

The muscle activity in the arm was used to replace the brain activity. The computer interface allows the user to control the movements via a non-invasive magnet.

Yukio Nishimura, who worked on the project, said the technology has to be able to allow a greater range of movement for the user if they want it to be advanced to clinical trials in the future.

“We hope that this technology would compensate for the interrupted pathways’ function by sending an intentionally encoded command to the preserved spinal locomotor center and regain volitionally-controlled walking in indviduals with paraplegia.

“However, the major challenge that this technology does not help them to dodge obstacles and to maintain posture. We are carefully working toward clinical application in near future.”


The technology varies from that of mind-controlled suits that are being developed to  help replace wheelchairs in that it does not need to  directly use the brain to cause movement. 

The researchers tested the movement-enabling system on subjects who are able to walk. They got them to relax their legs and control their movement using the system created by the engineers.

While the system has been created to allow those with disabilities the potential to move it also shows how the body may be able to be controlled in the future without us using our brains.

The potential for moving without using our brains does exist and we may even be able to move based on computer-created algorithms.

There are naturally many issues that would have to be overcome, but if a computer could be involved in controlling our movements this could lead to a host of possibilities for human augmentation.

Video and image one courtesy of National Institutes of Natural Sciences/Yukio Nishimura

What will robotics look like in 2025? 2,000 experts have their say

Close to 2,000 experts have said that robotics will advance so much by 2025 that robots will be involved in almost every aspect of our lives.

They said, in a report by the Pew Research Centre, that our educational system is not preparing us for work in the future and we are poorly equipped to handle the hard choices that will have to be made.

There will also be some unemployment where workers are not skilled.

However, there will also be multiple positive outcomes that come developing the technology including freeing us from the most boring aspects of our daily lives.

From Intel to Netflix to Yale University, there were almost 1,900 respondents from the world of technology, innovation and research.

They were asked about what robotics will look like in 11 years time and how the technology will change our jobs and lives in general.

We have already seen robots that will look after our children as well as robot chefs being taught how to cook. 

We’ve picked out some of the most intriguing responses from the group:

Robocop on the streets

President of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Marc Rotenberg said that there will be drones which can interpret what they see and hear.

“They will likely have both infrared detection as well as the ability to see through solid materials and detect heat signatures. They will certainly have facial recognition capabilities and be integrated with a national biometric center.”

Knightscope K5 Autonomous Robot predicts and prevents crime

The robots will take over

Internet researcher Mary Joyce said there’s nothing we can do and robots will replace humans.

She said: “To the extent that human workers can be replaced by robots and algorithms, they will be. There’s no reason to believe that firms would behave in any other ways. And social forces, like unions, that would limit these actions, don’t have the strength to prevent these changes.”

The ‘underclass’ will grow

Media studies professor Mark Johns, from the US, argued that there will be an increase in the ‘underclass’ because robots will be more intelligent than humans.

He said: “Many manufacturing and service jobs will be eliminated by intelligent agents in the next decade. Social problems associated with a growing “underclass” will increase.

“The middle class will continue to shrink, and there will be a greater gap between the educated and tech-savvy ‘haves’ and the uneducated ‘have-nots’.”


Work will change

Janet Salmons, a PhD and independent researcher said that the jobs we do will fully change, and humans will be able to be more inventive:

“I expect that the landscape of work will change. I anticipate that there will be more ‘hybrid’ jobs with some tasks done by AI agents and others by real humans.

With any luck, the humans will be able to focus on more creative, innovative efforts with mundane and repetitive tasks completed by AI agents or robots.”

We’ll have more fun

University of North Carolina professor Paul Jones said that the social impact will make us think more about what it is to be human and thus we will have more leisure time.

“I for one welcome my new robot masters. I don’t welcome the loss of jobs or the depersonalization of services.”

The world will be colder

We will be much more antisocial says Vytautas Butrimas from a major government ministry.

“Just look at what is happening at our airport waiting lounges. People sit next to each other but the interaction is not taking place with the neighbour sitting nearby but with a device communicating to some other device.

“The world will be more bureaucratic and ‘cold’ in 2025 than it is today.”

The full report can be found here. 

Image one courtesy of KnightScope. Image two courtesy of Cornell University.