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Japanese boffins build breakthrough brain-machine interface

Works without surgery, training

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Honda scientists have created a system that will translate thoughts into electrical signals that can be used to control machinery. The technique doesn't require the user to undergo surgery or extensive training - a major advance over past thought-controlled technologies, the company said.

Researchers at the Honda Research Institute in co-operation with boffins from Japan's Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute dub the system the "Brain Machine Interface". Details of the rig itself remain sketchy, but the system reads "natural brain activity... for the near real-time operation of a robot".

The scientists found that while monitoring brains to find the right signals for commands like 'yes', 'no', 'move forward' and so on is hard - at least not without considerable training on the part of the user or without electrodes implanted in the brain - it's much easier to detect the neural activity triggered when someone moves their hands. Using a simple command system based on the 'scissors-paper-stone' game, the boffins built a non-invasive detector with, they claim, a decoding accuracy of 85 per cent. The detector monitors the flow of blood around the brain rather than neural impulses per se.

There's one snag: there's a seven-second lag between the subject commanding his or her hand to form a scissor pattern and the robotic arm mimicking the human action. The system also requires some sophisticated computing to translate the brain's haemodynamics into robot-control signals, and of course the subject has to lie in a brain scanner - hardly a solution for use in the field. ®

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