• Question: If you can clip metal on to your brain and control a robot, could you control somebody else's robotic arm????

    Asked by mee3megemel to Alex, Claire, Kate, Marcus, Neil on 23 Jun 2014.
    • Photo: Marcus Johns

      Marcus Johns answered on 23 Jun 2014:

      Many people would probably say no, but then most people would say that it’s not possible to ‘hack’ someone else’s pacemaker or insulin pump. Unfortunately, it’s been shown that you can control both of these, so you could probably control someone else’s robotic arm!

      This is an area which will be looked at more as bionic (robotic) limbs develop. It is slowly being recognised, thanks to professional security researchers such as Barnaby Jack, that hacking of electronic items will always be a risk and that this needs to be thought about during the development of the product. This ranges from traditional company computer systems to driver-less cars, and will inevitably include any advanced robotics used for limb or organ replacement.

    • Photo: Alex Lyness

      Alex Lyness answered on 23 Jun 2014:

      Hey mee3megemel,

      The answer to your question is: Yes! Scary, eh?

      Except at the moment it is easier to attach electrodes/sensors to the skin on peoples arms and legs (or stumps if they’ve had an amputation) and take the electrical impulses from there. This approach is called ‘non-invasive’ compared to putting chip in someones brain which is called ‘invasive’ and would probably require surgery.

      Attaching a ‘smart-prosthetic’ onto someones arm that is wired onto their stump on the upper limb for where there muscles would usually attach for the lower limb (forearm, calf) means that when they think of moving their arm, these muscles contract and the robo-arm, hand or foot can move too. This is amazing technology and pioneering by the US and UK armed forces for how many people had had arms and legs blown off by roadside bombs.

      For people who are paralysed and cannot move any part of their body there is hope too. Check out this news article for more info: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-20731973 It shows a women using an arm so she can have a drink. The video is incredible to watch, clearly just being able to pick up a cup and have a drink (we can do this for granted) means a great deal to the paralysed lady.

      When this technology becomes good/reliable or even cheap enough we might all be able to control robotic arms with just our thoughts. Hopefully all the uses will be for good things, but I have my doubts… it could lead to killer armies of mind controlled robot drones (let’s hope not!).

    • Photo: Claire Brockett

      Claire Brockett answered on 24 Jun 2014:

      As Marcus and Alex have said – it could be possible. One of the responsibilities of being an engineer is to consider the safety and security of people – so I would hope there’s a lot of work going in to preventing this happening as the technology moves on!