Always on (the Internet) in 2013, and controlling a robotic arm with a brain implant

Jan Scheuermann, who has quadriplegia, brings a chocolate bar to her mouth using a robot arm she is guiding with her brain.

However you plan on celebrating this New Year's Eve, you'll probably spend at least part of it on the Internet. We've been asking experts for their 2013 tech predictions. Today, Molly Wood, executive editor at CNET weighs in. She says we're about to enter the era of always being online.

"I feel like this is going to be the year of the connected device" says Wood. "Where everybody realizes, or the more tech savvy amongst us realizes, that just about everything you own can be connected to the internet, and that makes the world more exciting, more personal, more useful place to live."

What is she thinking of specifically? 

"Your car," she says. "People are suddenly realizing you can have this integration between your computer and your car, or that you could be surfing the web from your brand new vehicle. So things that people haven’t necessarily traditionally thought of are suddenly apart of your home network. And that means your smart phone or your tablet can talk to you TV, and vice versa, and you’re sort of sharing content, information. It sounds complicated at first, but once it’s all hooked up, it’s pretty fun." 

We asked Wood if she was anticipating any game-changing gadgets that aren't on the shelf -- or in the driveway -- just yet. She's really excited about Google's Project Glass

"They capture everything around you in real time," she says. "They’re connected to the Internet, and they can stream whatever you’re seeing as video or they can take photos and upload them. And I really think that this idea of wearable technology that is always connected or is total immersive, or is giving you information all the time. That, I think, is going to represent a huge step forward in the way we interact."

I agree. I've been talking to people about this all year, because of what I see as the "Being John Malkovitch" potential for this sort of thing. It's a bit terrifying, but also interesting, what this sort of wearable tech might bring. Wood is ready to go for it. 

"It’s completely sci-fi," she says, "but I think in limited doses people will do it. It really just takes the idea of Twitter and Instagram and even Facebook to the next level. So you can stream as you choose. You can stream publically, you can stream privately. But I also think there’s really big implications in the fact that the glasses can also give you information. They can give you information about where you need to go, or whether or not there’s a traffic jam, or where you can find food, and that to me is just a step toward the awesome cyborg future that I can’t wait for, where I have that as implants."

Don't worry though; Wood says we're a ways off yet. In the meantime, we can start deciding whether we want to experience the life of Kim Kardashian as a first person-view reality show. Yeesh.  


On Mondays we like to talk big ideas. But how about when a big idea becomes a breakthrough? Recently I watched a video of a woman feeding herself with a robotic arm that was taking orders directly from her brain. The woman, named Jan Scheuermann, has a great AMA up on Reddit. And the project that allowed her to use the arm has been a long time coming. The tech behind it aids a special relationship between the brain and the limbs. 

"Every time we move, our brain has to send commands to our hand and arm in order to move," says University of Pittsburgh neurobiology Professor Andrew Schwartz, who led the project. "Those commands are well represented in a certain part of the brain called the motor cortex. And by intercepting those commands, for people who can’t move their own arms, we can intercept those commands, and then based on those commands move a device for a patient when they can’t normally move their own arm."

After decades of motor cortex research around the scientific community, Professor Schwartz and his team have successfully used surgically implanted sensors on the brain to deliver those commands (learn more about it at the website).

"We were able to decode signals from the brain," says Schwartz, "The way we do that is we implant little microelectrodes, and we implanted 200 of those in our human subject and we were able to record action potentials from individual neurons, and decode what those action potentials mean so we were able to detect the subjects intention to move and then actually move the prosthetic arm according to those intentions."

More understanding about cognition, says Schwartz, could lead to a host of leaps forward in medical tech. Here's what he says:

"We’re trying to restore movement to those that cannot move. So that would be people that have a spinal cord injury, brain stem strokes, ALS, perhaps we’ll go into other motor disorders like multiple sclerosis, hopefully we’ll go into cordical strokes in the near future. The more people we can help the faster this will be commercialized, so that’s important. 

But perhaps more important is the scientific basis that these devices work upon, and what we’re really doing is as we work with this, we’re starting to understand basic principals of the way the brain works. So, for instance, I mentioned that we’re capturing intention. Well intention is related to cognition, and as we start interacting with objects in our hand we’re actually looking at tool use which is a fairly advanced behavior, and we need to understand that. So when you reach for an object we’d like to understand what it is you want to do with that object once you grasp it. So that’s really the domain of tool use, which is basically uniquely human, and so this gives us the potential for understanding things like cognition and purposeful creation and prediction of what we’re going to do in the future. 

Involved with all of this is the learning process so by putting these electrodes in the brain, and studying the way neurons talk to one another, we’re really starting to understand the basic principals of how learning works.  And so the excitement that I feel is in the uncovering of basic scientific principals of brain function. And I think the potential for that is enormous."

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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