Three years ago, University of Minnesota professor Bin He developed a brain-controlled drone.
Engineering students across the country now build them for fun, and He’s got a brain-controlled robot arm that can be wielded through the power of thought. A student guinea pig wearing a cap outfitted with sensors tracking the brain’s electrical impulses need only imagine moving the arm, and the arm complies.
He describes the innovation in practiced layman’s terms. Imagine you need to locate a small ship in a storm, but there’s a heavy dome of bad weather over the ocean. How are you supposed to pick up the rescue signals? His challenge was to develop a technology to pinpoint the brain’s electrical signals so perfectly that specific commands can be decoded through the thick plates of skull and hair.
The even-keeled professor is humbly expository when he talks about his groundbreaking achievement. He only becomes flushed when he imagines its possibilities.
There are several large classes of patients whose lives could change with further development of robot limbs: people with spinal cord injuries, stroke patients whose brains require rehab, and amputees who have lost body parts to war. He’s robot arm represents the hope of regaining full ability and independence.
He’s discoveries are just the latest in a 30-year career in pushing boundaries, which began when he was a high schooler in China, reading about an MIT professor’s pioneering research of the brain’s magnetic field in Science magazine. The idea that humans could pick up a tiny magnetic signal generated by the brain blew his mind. He was convinced that exciting things were happening in the United States.
Thirty years later, He is already dreaming 30 years into the future again. Advances in thought-controlled robots have the potential to transform human ability as we know it.
A robot arm mounted on a table could help a paralyzed patient feed himself. It could also help an able-bodied person cook dinner while doing laundry, or hold a cup of coffee and a bagel for a driver with two hands on the wheel. People could think lights on and off.
“A lot of things we are skeptical of now, and 30 years later it will become the reality,” He says. “Every project I train a team of students to tackle the cutting-edge research, to learn things by doing things that have never been done before. It’s not to teach them knowledge, but really to teach them the capability to discover knowledge.”