Scientists invent brain-controlled Iron Man suit

Posted by Lydia Leavitt

Were you are one of those people who bought Happy Meals back in the day simply to collect the Transformers toy? 

Do your favorite movies include Iron Man and Iron Man 2?

Well, the Society for Neuroscience and its researchers at the University of Chicago may have just given you the ultimate Christmas present: a brain- controlled super-powered exoskeleton.

Researchers in Chicago say they have done enough monkey business (and by that we mean research with monkeys) to conclude that a mechanical body shell - or exoskeleton - can be built and controlled using only the power of the mind. 

Yes, far out, double rainbow all the way across the sky, dude.

Scientists invent brain controlled iron man suitFor those who want the real scientific spiel, the press release reads:

"The authors worked with two adult rhesus macaques to assess a system that incorporates a sense of movement.

"Each monkey was first trained to control a cursor using brain signals only; electrodes collected and processed data from the monkeys' motor cortex cells and transmitted those commands to the computer.

"Basic science research has shown that simply thinking about a motion activates brain cells in the same way that making the movement does, so each monkey needed to only think about moving a cursor to do it."

All well and good, but where's my monkey suit?

Well, the simian sourcing scientists proceeded to kit out their rhesus pieces with a robotic "sleeve" that fit over their arm.

"In the first part of the experiment, the monkeys controlled the cursor by simply looking at the computer screen. In the second part, the robotic device moved the monkey's relaxed arm in tandem with the cursor movement, so the monkey could sense the cursor's motion in time and space. The authors found when the monkeys had the extra sensation, the cursor hit the target faster and more directly."

Or in layman's terms, the monkeys learned to think about moving their arm better if their arm was stimulated at the same time. Which seems
rather obvious, but what do we non-scientists know?

Rather naively, the lead researcher on the project, Nicholas Hatsopoulos, believes the wearable exoskeletal robots could be used for medical good, to "provide sensory information to patients with full or partial feeling," or "to replicate sensory feedback in patients who have lost both motor and sensory function."

Of course, the US military has other - less altruistic - plans that involve clunking off to battle in mechanical armor.

Back in May 2008 a robotics company called Sarcos based in Salt Lake City, Utah announced it had come up with a working "Iron man" suit able to multiply a person's strength and endurance by up to 20 times when wearing it.

Sarcos promptly landed itself a lucrative $10 million contract from the US military, to come up with something that will make a future generation of super transformer soldiers.

That mechanical suit weighed 70kg and had a computerized "brain" able to sense the movement of the person wearing it, and then amplify those movements almost instantaneously through a series of hydraulic valves mimicking the tendons in the human body.

Simply imagine the results of combining the Chicago team's research with Sarcos' military funded efforts and you have a sci-fi action movie in the making. Minus the monkeys.

Or maybe with the monkeys, depending on your views of the military.

Of course, nobody is currently admitting that the suits would be used in this way and any journalist speaking to Sarcos is likely to get the same old line about the suit being used for unloading weighty ammunition crates from trucks and helicopters, heaving hundreds of pounds of equipment through difficult terrain and for fixing tank and other military vehicle breakdowns in warzones.

Last time we checked though, the suit only had a 30-minute short battery life and had to be powered by a generator, which is hardly ideal for ultra-mobility.

Still, monkeys, transformers, brain moving thought machines and military killing machines...Is this a killer Christmas story or what?

(Via Gizmodo & Society for Neuroscience)