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Lending your brain to a robot

Working in teams in a production environment  is the normal way to maximize efficiency and share competences. Workers in a team interact with one another, sometimes verbally (or in writing) to share information, sometimes just by exchanging glances. And it works pretty well most of the time. I got a nut in my hand and a co-worker lends me a wrench. It is like using telepathy but as a matter of fact is about sharing the same context and perceiving subliminal hints.

What if one of the co-worker is a robot?  Today most robots work in isolation from humans (there are often fences to ensure safety and avoid unwanted interaction with the machine) but in the future robots are likely to become part of the team and interactions will need to be seamless, as it is today among human workers.

This is the goal for a team at MIT (CSAIL) and Boston University who are using Baxter (a robot that has been designed by Rethink Robotics to operate as a coworker and be easy to train by its fellow workers. 

They are trying to use a brain to robot communications to interact with it, retrieving brainwaves through a helmet with embedded pads that capture electrical signals generated by the brain as part of its “thinking”.

The experiment so far is pretty basic. It aims at conveying to the robot the message "you are doing right" or "you are doing wrong". The (human) co-worker observes the robot and see if it makes a mistake. This mistake detection by the robot generates brainwaves that are captured by the helmet (along with thousands of others…) and analysed by a software that singles out the message and conveys it to the robot.  By being told that it made a mistake the robot learns and improves.

Clearly we are pretty far from a real cooperation brain-robot, and the use of a helmet is not particularly attractive on a workplace (particularly one with plenty of wires getting out of it to connect to the computer). Nevertheless it is interesting to see researchers working in this area.

As the Chinese Laozi philosopher said "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step".  Indeed, many more will be needed to see the end.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.