The Wildly Ambitious Quest to Build a Mind-Controlled Exoskeleton by 2014

by GREG MILLER, Wired.com  |  published on March 1, 2013

robotic suit

Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis went on The Daily Show in 2011 and told Jon Stewart that he would develop a robotic body suit that would allow paralyzed people to walk again simply by thinking about it — and he’d do it in just 3 or 4 years.

It was an audacious, some might say reckless, claim. But two years later, Nicolelis insists he’s on track. And he hopes to prove it in brazen fashion in front of billions of people during one of the world’s most-watched events: the World Cup.

The tournament, which will be held in his native Brazil, is less than 16 months away. If all goes according to plan, during the opening ceremony, a young paralyzed person will step onto the field in a robotic exoskeleton operated by electrodes implanted in his or her brain, walk about 20 steps, and kick a soccer ball.

This may sound incredible, but in recent years, research on using signals from the brain to operate machines has taken great strides. Scientists have developed brain-machine interfaces that allow paralyzed humans to move a computer cursor or even use a robotic arm to pick up a piece of chocolate or touch a loved one for the first time in years. Nicolelis has set his sights even higher: He wants to get paralyzed people up and walking around. If he succeeds it could be a tremendous advance. Right now he’s still developing this technology in monkeys. There’s a long way to go.

But Nicolelis was brimming with confidence in January when I visited his lab at Duke University to see how his work is progressing. “We’re getting close to making wheelchairs obsolete,” he said.

Such proclamations don’t sit well with everyone. In the Brazilian media, some scientists have criticized Nicolelis’ plan as premature, an expensive stunt, funded with scarce federal research money and aimed more at creating a spectacle than advancing science. Meanwhile, some U.S. researchers fear he could deal a setback to the fast-moving field of brain-machine interfaces by promising too much, too soon.

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