The World Cup's Mind-Controlled Exoskeleton

It’s rare for scientists to physically showcase their own work in public settings. But that's how science advances.
Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis in his robotic laboratory in Sao Paulo, May 21, 2014 (Paolo Whitaker/Reuters)

In São Paulo, the World Cup may open with a curious sight: A young, paralyzed Brazilian will stand up, walk to centerfield, and kick the ceremonial first ball.

If all goes as planned, aiding the young man or woman will be the newest iteration in a line of thought-controlled exoskeletons. Wearing a snug, 3D-printed helmet and a concealed cap of electrodes, the pilot will simply think about the necessary movements. A backpack housing a nest of wires and actuators will decode the brain waves picked up by the electrode contacts. Using the decoded movement patterns to control the exoskeleton’s limbs, the brain-machine interface will convert human intent into robotic motion.

At least, that’s the dream of the Duke University neuroscientist leading the research efforts. As the June 12 opening ceremony approaches, Brazilian native Miguel Nicolelis and his team are frantically attempting to get the exoskeleton ready for the world stage. Should they succeed, they will have pulled off what is surely one of the most widely viewed live demonstrations of prosthetic science in history.

“The main message is that science and technology can be agents of social transformation in the whole world,” Nicolelis told the BBC. “That they can be used to alleviate the suffering and the limitations of millions of people.”

But whether or not the display will actually amount to anything more than a transient publicity stunt is an open question. The demonstration of the exoskeleton is not without critics, who suggest that the effort might be promising too much, too soon.

Nicolelis has a flair for capturing public interest—a trait often met with suspicion in the scientific community. In 2008, the neuroscientist made headlines when a rhesus monkey in his lab at Duke controlled the legs of a robot in Kyoto using only her thoughts. The Walk Again Project, the nonprofit umbrella responsible for the World Cup exoskeleton, stemmed from this work.

Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis shows a robotic
exoskeleton in Sao Paulo. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)

Skepticism of Nicolelis’ efforts comes largely with respect to the integrity of the science at play; that is, to what extent the exoskeleton will actually be driven by its pilot’s thoughts. It is one thing to decode a “start” and “stop” signal from scalp electrodes. It is quite another to tease out the subtle neural signals that encode the 17 degrees of freedom necessary for the exoskeleton’s full range of motion.

Other scientists are more optimistic. “I think the publicity means something for science,” said Tim Vogels, a computational and theoretical neuroscientist at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour.

“I think it’s a good demonstration of what we can do and what we’re aiming for. Whether it’s meaningful in the long term, I don’t know.”

What we do know is that the FIFA World Cup is an unlikely, mammoth stage for science. In 2010, 57 World Cup matches—89 percent of the games played—had a global in-home audience of at least 100 million. That’s 57 Super Bowls over the course of a month. Roughly 300 million people watched the last opening match, and nearly a billion tuned in for a portion of the 2010 final between Spain and the Netherlands. And these numbers don’t take into account the people watching in sports bars and other public settings.

The standard routes of modern science communication pale in comparison to the scale of FIFA Brazil. Compare the 300 million opening-match viewers to the 3.5 million Scientific American readers or the one million Radiolab listeners.

It is not only the size of his audience that sets Nicolelis and his exoskeleton apart. It’s rare for scientists to physically showcase their own work in lay public settings.

This is partly because of the abstract or nanoscale nature of many current scientific endeavors, but Vogels also cites time constraints and intellectual property concerns as reasons for shying away from the public eye. He also noted a fear of misrepresentation by journalists.

“Do I see any hurdles?” he reflected. “There are tons of them, right? There are only hurdles.”

That wasn’t always the case. During the early Royal Society lectures of the Enlightenment, public demonstrations of science were crucial for widespread acceptance of natural philosophy. As demonstrations spread from the Society to provincial towns and coffee shops of the late-17th and early-18th centuries, science became something that members of the public could observe, debate, and even replicate.

“The most important achievement in natural philosophy in the 18th century was a burgeoning public interest,” wrote historian Larry Stewart in The Rise of Public Science. “Making science public was itself an intellectual revolution that preceded the force of industry.”

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Clayton Aldern is a writer based in Oxford, England.

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