Telepresence: The Good Kind Of Mind Control

Paralysis used to mean being condemned to a life of immobility. Now, thanks to amazing technological breakthroughs, we not only have the ability to restore the power of motion to human beings, but will soon be able to utilize the same "telepresent" technology to operate robotic elements on other worlds.

This week, for the first time ever, a paralyzed young man was able to have mobility and even a level of dexterity restored to his arm, thanks to a microchip embedded in his brain. The research team, comprised of doctors from Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center and engineers from the non-profit research center Battelle, had expected their microchip to enable motion in one finger of the paralyzed 23-year old Ian Burkhart. Stunningly, Burkhart was able to not only open and close his entire hand, but was capable of summoning the dexterity to pick up a spoon.

Burkhart had been paralyzed from the chest down for the last four years.

The fascinating new technology that enabled this breakthrough is called the Neurobridge. Starting with a .15-inch-wide chip implanted in the skull, the Neurobridge "reads" thoughts via 96 electrodes and sends them to a sleeve of receptor electrodes on the wearer's limb, travelling via an external skull-socket not unlike the humans' plug-in ports seen in the "Matrix" movies.

Thank to the success, Burkhart's surgeon, Dr. Ali Rezai, told the Telegraph UK, "I do believe there will be a day coming soon when somebody who's got a disability – being a quadriplegic or somebody with a stroke, somebody with any kind of brain injury – can use the power of their mind and by thinking, be able to move their arms or legs.”

The basics of the Neurobridge, as shown by

Outstanding as it is, this may be only the beginning for telepresent technology. Another organization increasingly interested in mind-powered motion is none other than NASA, who feel the technology could be applied to enabling robotic elements for complex tasks in some of the most remote places possible.

At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, a series of experiments for robot-human interfaces have been taking place, aiming to make telepresence a feature of future spaceflight. Currently projects are underway using video-game technology like Xbox Kinect and Oculus Rift to manipulate robotic avatars in virtual reality, with the goal of someday allowing a human to operate them from afar. The head of JPL's Planning Software Systems Group, NASA's Jeff Norris told
"We want to go to a lot of different places. Mars is interesting, and we want to go there very much, but there are so many other places in the solar system. The ability to build a robot that is perfectly suited to a potentially very hazardous environment, that’s going to go swimming in the rains of Saturn, or something like that. The ability to build a robot that is optimized for that task, and then to control it in a way that makes you feel like you are there, to me feels like a very powerful competence. Because, here we are, able to use technologies that make us feel present in that environment, but in a way of inhabiting a robotic avatar that is perfectly attuned to that environment. That’s pretty phenomenal."
Beyond the virtual realm, NASA's plans to make telepresence a facet of full-on "telexploration" are already well underway. Robonaut, the humanoid robot installed on the International Space Station, can be controlled telepresently by human operators on earth, expressing 43 degrees of "freedom" via helmet-mounted units, specialized gloves, and posture-positioning trackers. According to NASA, "The goal of telepresence control is to provide an intuitive, unobtrusive, accurate and low-cost method for tracking operator motions and communicating them to the robotic system."

While NASA's plans for spacecraft and robotic control don't yet include a chip in the brain, it continues to improve on the technology that will make the virtual and actual uses of telepresence more immersive, realistic, and dexterous. New algorithms, camera-based tracking, and magnetic sensors will all add to and improve the ability to manipulate elements like Robonaut or other specialized machinery.

The concept of telepresence has been around in science fiction for as long as the genre has existed, but the term itself was coined in 1980 by MIT professor and robotics engineer Marvin Minsky. He theorized that telepresent robots would, in the 21st century, be critical operational elements for dangerous tasks like mining, the maintenance of oil disasters, or even serious trouble like nuclear reactor meltdowns. In his Omni magazine article "Telepresence: A Manifesto", Minsky states that when faced with the challenge of building "unbreakable" reactor parts (that will eventually someday require repair) versus building with realistic material lifespans that could be fixed via robotic telepresence, "I think the better extreme is to build modular systems that permit periodic inspection, maintenance, and repair. Telepresence would prevent crises before they could arise."

Applying this same reasoning to the space program could keep costs in check while maintaining a high standard of operational capability during missions. As for humans, integrated cranial telepresence could restore "mission capability" to damaged limbs. That does not mean the technology isn't still a little creepy in its formative stages, particularly if one wants to be "emotionally" telepresent.

TELL ME YOUR SECRETS:  the Telenoid wants to talk with you.  Image courtesy Ars Electronica.

The Telenoid, a telepresently-operated robot intended for advanced video conferencing, is able to mimic the eye, mouth, and upper body movements of its user, simulating the major tenets of what humans perceive physically as "emotions." Created by Japanese robotics engineer Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, this is an interesting attempt at sharing your feelings with faraway friends. While the Telenoid's pale, spectral presence is still a bit eerie to be considered a good substitute for a human interaction, achievements in android avatar technology in the future may allow for more realistic robotic experiences. While the emotional components of telepresence may still fall short, in the meantime, the physical elements of the technology are now proven to produce results, and disabled humans like Ian Burkhart and others can now hopefully use the technology to at least physically improve themselves.

Telepresence is undoubtedly a fine facet of the future now, and as we continue to map the human brain and unlock its secrets, perhaps externally beaming our thoughts out to our limbs (or those of robots under our command) will surpass many of humanity's previously-known physical limits. Though it seems nearly like movie magic at the present, future developments will branch out abundantly thanks to these current experiments. As Robert Heinlein said when first theorizing about telepresence in his story "Waldo & Magic, Inc.", "Never worry about theory as long as the machinery does what it's supposed to do."

Telepresent Demolition Derby on the moon soon?

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