Chinese scientists create robot arm powered by thought that can play rock, paper scissors

Chinese study has wide applications for patients who have lost limbs or muscle control

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 August, 2014, 7:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2014, 4:19pm

Chinese scientists have equipped a patient with a special robotic arm that she could successfully control – using just the power of her thoughts – to play “rock, paper scissors”.

The exciting breakthrough – which marked the first time the Chinese researchers used the gadget on humans, after testing it on monkeys and rats – spells hope for patients without limbs or who lack muscle control.

WATCH: Chinese scientists invent a brain-powered robot arm

The 28-year-old patient, a woman with epilepsy, was implanted with a brain electrode that was in turn wired to a robotic hand. Chinese researchers said she successfully willed the hand to perform the three gestures in “rock, paper, scissors”.

The implant was initially used to diagnose the patient’s epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes seizures, but through the research became a way to overcome the challenges posed by the disease.

The team started their research in 2006 and by 2012 had a breakthrough, with tests on a monkey proving the animal could “command” a robotic arm to pinch or grasp, Xinhua reported.

“We began [the experiment] with rats … then monkeys … and now humans,” said Zheng Xiaoxiang, a Zhejiang University professor who led the project.

“Compared to [previous] robotic hands controlled by monkeys, this technology is tailored for human use, [and] thus is more challenging,” she said in a statement.

The patient could control the robotic hand with her mind with about 80 per cent accuracy, the scientists said.

Though brain-wave-reading implants have been developed elsewhere in the world, the Chinese study was unique because of the data they collected from the implant.

The researchers could “eavesdrop” on the electric signals passing between the implant and medical equipment without affecting her treatment.

“The implant was buried in the [patient’s] cerebral cortex with minimum damage by surgery, so it can read more sophisticated and various brain waves,” Zheng said.

The robotic hand reads the patient’s brainwaves through the implant and translates it into actions.

WATCH: US scientists enable a paralysed man to move his hand through a robotic device

In June this year, US scientists from the University of Ohio and the science non-profit Batelle had a similar breakthrough, enabling a quadriplegic man – who was paralysed in an accident – to move his own hand and fingers with a help of a device called the Neurobridge.

The device, equipped with a sleeve for the man’s hand and arms, acted as a “bypass” between his brain and the muscles. The device used algorithms to translate brain wave patterns into signals for the muscles to move, reports said at the time.

Zhang Jianmin, a Zhejiang University professor also involved in the Chinese study, was quoted by Xinhua as saying that the latest experiment showed China’s progress in brain-machine interface research, bringing new hope to patients who suffer from motor dysfunctions in their limbs.

“In fact, this research will have many clinical applications and benefits to many patients such as [those suffering] from limb paralysis after a stroke [or] spinal cord injury,” he said in a separate statement published by the university.

“A definite direction of this technology is to put all devices into the patient’s brain to rebuild their physical abilities,” said Zhang, who is also chief of the neurology department of the Zhejiang University Second Affiliated Hospital.

“But now we still need more mature, stable, reliable technology and materials,” he said.

With reporting from Stephen Chen