Category Archives: Bionics

Is mimicking human biology the path forward to developing human-like AI?

ECCEROBOT, billed by its designers at the University of Sussex as the “world’s first anthropomimetic robot,” was designed to mimic the form and function of the human body. Engineers created a synthetic skeleton to which they attached synthetic tendons and “muscles” with the goal of developing a robot that moves and interacts with the world as we do. Ultimately, researchers want to know if and how having a human-like body may help the machine develop human-like intelligence.

The concept is interesting and I think this type of research, from an engineering standpoint, could potentially have great use for development of artificial limbs and bionic body parts, which users require to match “the originals” as closely as possible. As an generalized approach for building humanoid robots, however, I’m not convinced that trying to copy biology as closely as possible is the most efficient or effective way to go. After all, biology and evolution are messy, and even if we did want to copy biological structures exactly, we are far from having adequate technology and materials to do so.

Given these physical limitations I’m interested to see how the software that powers ECCEROBOT might “learn” and develop. An alternative approach with the same goal might be letting an AI interact with avatars and virtual objects in a detailed virtual world, but again, we’ve got a long way to go before that becomes a viable research path.

ECCEROBOT and other humanoid robots are going to be featured in a BBC documentary, “The Hunt for AI,” which will air tomorrow.

(Via Techland)

“World’s first” procedure allows woman to grow femur to fit bionic leg

For some above-the-knee amputees, it can be difficult to fit a prosthetic if the remaining stump is too short. In such cases, amputees must walk with crutches or use a wheelchair. Marny Cringle was one such case when her left leg was amputated after a train accident. For several months, however, Cringle has undergone a painful treatment designed to lengthen her remaining femur a full two inches, which will enable her to be fitted for a new bionic limb:

The next step is for surgeons at the Macquarie University Hospital in Sydney to anchor the top part of the bionic leg into her femur, where muscle and bone will gradually grow around it.

It will be the first time someone has successfully had both a bone stump lengthened and a bionic limb fitted, but for former wheelchair tennis champion Cringle it is much more than that.

“Just to be able to walk with two hands free is something I’m really looking forward to,” she said. “And to be able to cuddle someone without having to have crutches hanging off me — it’s those minor things.”

Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Munjed Al Muderis, who will head the operation, described the procedure as “the future for amputee patients worldwide.”

According to a story in the Daily Mail, it appears Cringle will be receiving a Genium Prosthetic Knee System, which claims to be the “world’s only microprocessor controlled knee that can anticipate your movements and adapt instantaneously in order to function as close to a natural leg as possible.”

Cringle is expected to have her new leg fitted in April 2012.

Monkeys control virtual arm and “feel” virtual textures through thought

For the first time, researchers at Duke University have demonstrated a brain-machine-brain interface in monkeys that enabled the subjects to manipulate a virtual arm in a computer program and discern various “textures” of visually identical virtual objects through thought alone.

Each monkey received continuous electrical signals directly to their motor neurons that enabled them to move their avatar’s arm. By delivering different patterns of electrical signals to sensory neurons, researchers were able to simulate various sensations of texture for the on-screen objects.

Study lead Miguel Nicolelis, MD, PhD, says he hopes the research will be used to help disabled individuals achieve improved mobility:

“Someday in the near future, quadriplegic patients will take advantage of this technology not only to move their arms and hands and to walk again, but also to sense the texture of objects placed in their hands, or experience the nuances of the terrain on which they stroll with the help of a wearable robotic exoskeleton,” said study leader Miguel Nicolelis, MD, PhD, professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center and co-director of the Duke Center for Neuroengineering. …

“We hope that in the next few years this technology could help to restore a more autonomous life to many patients who are currently locked in without being able to move or experience any tactile sensation of the surrounding world,” Nicolelis said.

Study results were published today in the journal Nature.

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Artificial cerebellum helps rat regain motor control

Scientists at Tel Aviv University have successfully replaced a rat’s cerebellum with a digital substitute, thus enabling it to regain motor function that had previously been lost:

One of the functions of the cerebellum is to help coordinate and time movements. This, and the fact that it has a relatively straightforward neuronal architecture, make it a good region of the brain to synthesise. “We know its anatomy and some of its behaviours almost perfectly,” says Mintz. The team analysed brainstem signals feeding into a real cerebellum and the output it generated in response. They then used this information to generate a synthetic version on a chip that sits outside the skull and is wired into the brain using electrodes.

To test the chip, they anaesthetised a rat and disabled its cerebellum before hooking up their synthetic version. They then tried to teach the anaesthetised animal a conditioned motor reflex – a blink – by combining an auditory tone with a puff of air on the eye, until the animal blinked on hearing the tone alone. They first tried this without the chip connected, and found the rat was unable to learn the motor reflex. But once the artificial cerebellum was connected, the rat behaved as a normal animal would, learning to connect the sound with the need to blink.

Some news reports are billing this as an “artificial brain,” which it certainly is not – it’s a synthetic version of a region of the brain, and one that has been extensively researched, making it an excellent candidate for a project of this type. Still, it’s a fascinating development and one that could hold great promise in the future for helping those who have suffered brain damage.

“Eyeborg” documentary spotlights real-life cyborgs

I’ve been pretty enthralled with the new Deus Ex: Human Revolution video game, which takes place in a near-future world where humans are beginning to throw off the shackles of biology through non-biological “augmentations” – think bionic limbs, neural implants, artificial eyes, and so on that surpass the capabilities of the parts they’re replacing.

To promote the game, publisher Square Enix enlisted “real-life cyborg” Rob Spence, a.k.a. “Eyeborg,” to create a short documentary of people who are on the cutting edge of prosthetics technology.

Spence is notable for having replaced a missing eye – lost in a firearms accident – with a wireless video camera, which he uses to capture low-resolution video footage. In this mini-documentary he speaks with individuals who have benefited from advanced prosthetics, as well as those who engineer them, and splices in footage from his eye throughout.

It’s an interesting way to promote a video game, and a reminder of how far we’ve come with prosthetics. After all, it wasn’t long ago when the standard-issue “replacement” for a missing hand was a hook. We’ve got a long way to go before people start abandoning their natural body parts for human-made replacements, but it may not be so far-fetched a concept in the near future.

Ad campaign for “Deus Ex” shows commercials for transhuman future

The upcoming video game “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” takes place in a future where bionic limbs and organs are for sale – and are superior to the ones humans are born with. In the game, the player character works for a manufacturer of replacement body parts, called Serif Sarif Industries.

This fictional commercial for Serif Sarif shows a place where synthetic eyes can snap and send a photo with a thought, where bionic hands are capable of playing masterpieces on the piano, and where bionic arms give you the ability to throw a perfect spiral. (Notably, they don’t show the protagonist’s ability to produce retractable blades from his elbows or machine guns from his arms.)

While the commercial is fake, I hope to soon see a day when the technology on display is real.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is scheduled to be released August 23, 2011.

Source: Kotaku

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter a13ph for correcting my spelling. It’s “Sarif,” not “Serif.” I work too much with fonts, I think.

New motorized prosthetic knee helps amputees walk easier

Walking with an above-the-knee prosthetic leg is extremely difficult for amputees, requiring 80 percent more energy when compared to walking on “natural” legs. Motorized knees, however, such as the new POWER KNEE from Icelandic firm Ossur, can make walking with a prosthesis far more efficient. The POWER KNEE uses a series of motors and a microprocessor to mimic “natural” movement that can enable users to walk longer distances and navigate more difficult terrain than possible with conventional lower limb prosthetics.

The prosthetic knee, which is manufactured from aluminium, also includes a replaceable battery pack, so users don’t need to remove their prosthesis to recharge.

The POWER KNEE is currently covered by the German National Health System, private health insurers in France and United Kingdom, and available from “select providers” in the United States.

Source: Engadget
Photo: Ossur

New powered exoskeletons to assist military, disabled

Despite similar concepts and design, two new robotic exoskeletons designed to assist humans are intended for very different audiences and very different purposes. The first is designed to enhance a person’s strength while preserving mobility. The second is designed to provide mobility to those in which it has been severely restricted.

HULC, or Human Universal Load Carrier, is an exoskeleton designed by Lockheed Martin to assist soldiers carrying heavy loads in the field. According to its manufacturer, HULC allows soldiers to carry up to 200 pounds for extended periods of time while preserving the user’s range of movement – including “deep squats, crawls and upper body lifting.”

As you can see in Lockheed’s promotional video above, HULC isn’t a bulky exoskeleton that provides strength in exchange for mobility. Users appear to be able to move quickly and easily even over rough terrain.

The U.S. Army is apparently intrigued by the concept, and this week announced a $1.1 million contract to actually field a few HULC units among active troops. While $1.1 million is a relative drop in the bucket as far as military spending goes, it may foretell a future in which assistive exoskeletons become common in the military for logistics staff and even soldiers engaged in combat.

New Zealand firm Rex Bionics took a different approach with their “robotic legs,” which are designed to allow the disabled to walk. The company notes the Rex is not intended to be a wheelchair replacement, but is instead a way to augment a chair – for instance, when needing to travel up and down stairs or access items stored at a standing height.

Having been in development for the last seven years. the Rex is expected to go on sale “soon” in its home country and is expected to cost $150,000.

Bionic eye may restore sight for patients with progressive vision loss

My grandfather suffered from age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), which causes loss of vision over time. By the time he passed away in his late 70s, he was almost blind. ARMD progresses from the “inside” of your visual field to the outside, so those affected are unable to see that which they are looking at directly. In some ways, the effects are the opposite of an eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP), which causes sufferers to lose peripheral vision first, creating a “tunnel vision” effect once the disease is sufficiently advanced.

Because I have a relative that suffered from ARMD, I’m at a 50 percent risk of developing the condition sometime in my life – as do my father, brother, aunts and uncles.

Based on my grandfather’s experience, macular degeneration can be especially frustrating because, although otherwise in good shape both mentally and physically, it becomes difficult or impossible to read, drive, easily watch television or recognize faces. I’m sure other progressive diseases that lead to vision loss are similarly frustrating.

In part because I have a personal stake in seeing treatments and workarounds developed for diseases like ARMD, I was glad to hear that Australian researchers have developed a retinal implant for people with ARMD and RP that will enable them to at least recognize faces and read large-type print:

The device, which is currently undergoing testing, consists of a miniature camera mounted on glasses that captures visual input, transforming it into electrical signals that directly stimulate surviving neurons in the retina. The implant will enable recipients to perceive points of light in the visual field that the brain can then reconstruct into an image.

The research team will next focus on development of a commercial implant that can be placed in the back of the eye and “respond to wireless transmission of vision.”

(Source: ScienceBlog / Image: Bionic Vision Australia)

Human body used as conduit for transmitting data

Researchers in South Korea have successfully transmitted data at broadband speeds between two points on a person’s arm using the body itself as a conduit. The technology is very energy efficient when compared to alternatives like wireless data transfer, and therefore may lend itself to health applications:

It is difficult to monitor vital signs, such as blood sugar and electrical activity of the heart, in a person going about their everyday lives because it means either covering them in snaking wires connected to a recording device, or using wireless transmission.

“If we use wireless for each of these vital signs we would need many batteries,” says study co-author Sang-Hoon Lee of Korea University in Seoul. A network transmitting through the skin would cut energy needs by roughly 90 per cent, he says.

Future versions of the technology could be implanted beneath the skin for long-term monitoring purposes.