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.”

* * *

In Nicolelis’ 2011 popular science book Beyond Boundaries, he described José Delgado, a neurophysiologist who pioneered early techniques for delivering electrical impulses directly to the brains of awake subjects. Delgado was one of the first to show the behavioral effects of stimulating various cortical and subcortical regions in animals and humans alike.

“My curiosity had been stirred,” wrote Nicolelis, “when I heard that Delgado had staged an experiment on the inhibitory behavioral effects of electrical brain stimulation in a bullfighting arena, of all places.”

He continued:

This fantastic setting is brought to life through a quick sequence of black-and-white photographs taken at a ranch in Cordoba, Spain. A lean, mean bull, whose ancestors had been carefully bred for many generations to enhance a single personality trait—a ferocious dislike of men holding red capes—plays out its scripted role, charging at full speed at the neurophysiologist who, at first glance, seems to be armed only with the typical red dress cape worn by the archetypal matador, the gold-swathed torero who, in Bizet’s immortal opera, manages to steal Carmen from Don José, every time.

Delgado was armed with more than a cape. In his left hand was a radio transmitter that could remotely stimulate electrodes implanted in the bull’s basal ganglia, thereby activating inhibitory motor circuitry. The last two photographs in the series show the bull skidding to a halt and turning away. Delgado doesn’t move. The 1965 demonstration warranted a New York Times write-up and an audience for his forthcoming book, Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society. The title, of course, didn’t mesh extraordinarily well with Cold War paranoia.

Delgado’s pairing of science with sport, however, seems to have stuck with Nicolelis—as did the tendency toward demonstration. “This is the way science advances,” he told the BBC. “You have to demonstrate and test the concept. It is a way of telling civil society, that pays for science around the world, that we have the possibility to dream with this reality because it is already working experimentally.”

The open access movement is one of the strongest advocates for public displays of science. One of the central tenets of open access is that taxpayers should be able to read the results of federally funded research. But the question of whether researchers have a specific responsibility to demonstrate their work to the public remains.

Vogels is pragmatic: “If we want to keep getting money, we do,” he said. “The public is paying for us—it’s our boss.”

Science doesn’t stop at the journal article. Nor are journal articles particularly legible. Besides, the public is not just funding Nicolelis’ papers—they’re funding the exoskeleton. Over his scientific career, Nicolelis has received support from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and DARPA, the research arm of the Pentagon. Funding for the Walk Again Project comes from Brazil’s Financing Body for Studies and Projects—a federal agency under the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation—as well as the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal (of which Nicolelis is scientific director).

In his book Science as Public Culture, Jan Golinksi writes that the ostensibly open and egalitarian model of the development of scientific knowledge "might be a desirable ideal, but it has evident faults as a model of how science actually works":

In particular, it seems not to fit with lay people’s experience of the impact of science on their lives. … [Science] often appears as a system of authority, the tool of powerful interests in society. … Scientific phenomena are essentially creatures of laboratories, with their particular concentrations of instrumentation and skills. Science, at its point of origin, is not public at all.

In the lab, researchers have already snagged the low-hanging fruit. As research methodology necessarily becomes more intricate and abstruse, it will become increasingly important to convey to the public what’s actually going on in there. Popular science communication can take us part of the way, but it will also take scientists stepping up and showing us what they’re doing. The goal is that demonstration breeds dialogue and that dialogue breeds checks and balances. If we’re lucky, we’ll also end up with some hope and inspiration.