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EU taps into brainpower tech

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The EU's new software developments detect the brain's intentions to perform computer functions.
The EU's new software developments detect the brain's intentions to perform computer functions.

The European Union (EU) has announced breakthroughs in its Tools for Brain-Computer Interaction (TOBI) project, enabling people with physical impairments to carry out computer functions and control basic robot tasks.

According to the EU, the project's experiments used three kinds of brain-to-computer dialogue. The first involved sending brain signals to a computer cursor via electrodes attached to a cap worn on the head. "Simply by thinking about what they wanted to type, patients could remotely control the computer cursor to surf the Web and write e-mails and texts."

In the second experiment, patients sent brain signals to control a small robot with video, audio and obstacle-detection sensors. They then used the robot to take a 'virtual' walk around the hospital or even connect with loved ones in different places.

The EU adds that other patients were able to "regain control" of their paralysed limbs by thinking about moving them. "This was done using computer software designed to detect a patient's intention to perform a certain movement. In some cases, intensive training and rehabilitation helped them to keep that control even after the electronics were removed."

New lease on life

Jean-Luc Geiser, a participant in the experiments who earlier suffered a stroke that left him paralysed, says: "Participating in this project allowed me to see that I can still be useful to society." Although he is unable to speak, Geiser was able to use the brain-computer interaction to communicate by typing e-mail messages via a computer cursor controlled through his brain waves.

Jos'e Mill'an, the project's co-ordinator and professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, notes it will assist people whose cognitive levels remain sufficiently high, despite their physical impairments.

Meanwhile, Neelie Kroes, VP of the European Commission responsible for the digital agenda, says: "The EU is helping new innovations be an opportunity, not a barrier, for people with disabilities. Technologies can enable greater autonomy and social inclusion."

According to the EU, 13 partners from Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the UK participated in TOBI as part of a EUR9 million (R126 million) investment. Its other innovation programme, Horizon 2020, "promises even more breakthroughs with EUR80 billion (R1.1 trillion) of funding available over the next seven years".

Local research

SA's annual Robotics and Mechatronics (RobMech) conference showcases and gauges the state of advanced robotics and mechatronics research in the country, with this year's event set to take place in Cape Town in November.

RobMech brings researchers, academics, application engineers, users and policy-makers of computer-aided design together, while delegates collaborate and scrutinise local research in a bid to boost SA's standing in the global market.

Chiemla Onunka and Glen Bright of the University of KwaZulu-Natal's mechanical engineering department presented a paper at a previous conference, exploring brain-computer systems. Titled "Robotics and the Brain-Computer Interface System: Critical Review for Manufacturing Application", the paper looks forward to improved efficiencies and performance of machines as global brain-computer interaction gathers pace.

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