Human augmentation has long been a staple of cyberpunk and science fiction; however as our understanding of computing and neuroscience improves, human-machine interplay becomes more common. Advances in bio-medical technology are improving the lives of disabled and paralyzed individuals, such as Erik Sorto (pictured), who recently received brain implants, allowing him to control a robotic arm.
Sorto is paralyzed from the neck down, a condition he has lived with for ten years, after being shot when he was 21. Having heard about a clinical trial at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Sorto decided to sign up. He then underwent an operation that implanted a pair of computer chips into the part of his brain responsible for movement intentions. These chips monitor and interpret complex brain patterns, relaying them back to a computer which in turn translates these into instructions for Sorto’s new robotic arm.
Alongside his robotic arm, Sorto can now also control a cursor on a computer, allowing him to greater autonomy. Speaking on his new capabilities, Sorto stated that;
“I really [missed] that independence. I think that if it was safe enough, I would really enjoy grooming myself, shaving, brushing my own teeth. That would be fantastic.”
Currently, Sorto has to rely on friends and helpers to assist him in most of his activities. Advances in brain-machine interfacing allows individuals with severe disabilities greater autonomy and pride. Moreover, such technologies allow not only for the repair, but also potential improvement of human capabilities in the long term.
This clinical trial holds significant promise, as it allows patients to simply visualize their intentions in order to achieve the desired movement. This allows paralyzed individuals to use their normal brain patterns and unconscious motor impulses to move robotic limbs. This is different from existing technologies which require individuals to actively think about distinct segments of each movement (extend arm, grasp, lift arm etc.) This in turn improves ease of use and fluidity of motion, as demonstrated by Sorto, who managed to learn how to use his robotic arm on the first day; shaking hands with research staff.