Remember the robotic arm from The Terminator? You know, the one that was used for reverse-engineering and led to the development of Skynet (not to mention a blockbuster film franchise)? Well, this isn’t that arm.
This one’s better — it’s real.
FOR THE LAST DECADE, Jan Scheuermann has been unable to move any of the muscles below her neck. Yet she’s been working out like an athlete since early 2012, exploring the outer boundaries of mind control and robotics.
Sitting in a nondescript building on the University of Pittsburgh campus, Scheuermann works with researchers and a robotic arm she calls Hector to perform feats that sound more like science fiction than fact. With the help of two tiny electrode arrays implanted in her brain and relentless work — eight to 12 hours weekly since February 2012 — Scheuermann can mentally direct where the arm moves next. As she focuses on a particular movement, her brain’s nerve impulses transmit to the computer that manipulates the robotic arm.
Because her work is part of an ongoing research project — and one of the most stunning advances in a federally funded effort to revolutionize prosthetic arms and hands — Scheuermann can’t take Hector home with her. But what might she achieve if she could?
“I could open the refrigerator and pull out a plate of food that someone had prepared and left for me,” says the 53-year-old Pittsburgh woman, who has a progressive neurological disease called spinocerebellar degeneration and steers her wheelchair with her chin. “I could feed myself. And I could bring a cup of liquid up to my mouth and drink through a straw.”
Such mind-bending capabilities are but a few of the numerous research avenues emerging from an ambitious effort by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — sometimes dubbed the mad scientists of the U.S. military — and its Revolutionizing Prosthetics program to significantly improve the options for veterans with upper-limb amputations.