After the news that a paralysed woman used brain waves to direct a robotic arm to pick up a cup of coffee, expectations have grown. But those who want to see the technology widely available may have to wait.
Jörn Vogel was the only scientist allowed in the room during the thought-steered robot experiments with Cathy Hutchinson in the US last year. He considers the tests, the results of which were recently published in the science magazine, Nature, as some of his most memorable work to date.
"It was a special moment for everyone when it finally worked," the German Aerospace Center (DLR) scientist told DW at a robotics expo in Munich.
Cathy Hutchinson, a 58-year-old American woman, could only communicate with her eyes throughout the tests. She had suffered a brain stem stroke 15 years ago.
Hutchinson is also unable to move any of her limbs.
The coaching phase with the DLR robot took years to perfect and involved a brain transplant, but Vogel says the results are conclusive proof that robots can be controlled by thought alone.
"She did six trials and on four occasions she succeeded in getting her cup to her mouth. In two she was about to knock the cup from the table, so we stopped the trial at that point."
A long process
Five years ago, Hutchinson was transplanted with a chip that monitors neuron activity in her brain. Vogel's colleague, Professor Patrick van der Smagt, has been monitoring her progress ever since.
Ahead of the final experiments, Hutchinson had to train her skills with the robot.
To begin with she was asked to follow its movements. At the same time, her neural activity was recorded.
Then the process was turned around. Hutchinson was given the robot to control and brain activity was recorded via the implanted sensor. Pattern-matching was used so that the robot arm could respond appropriately.
"It's really important that the test remains safe for the patient - both in practice and legally", Van der Smagt told DW. "That was one of the reasons why these experiments took so long, otherwise the science is relatively easy."
Since the successful tests with Hutchinson, another participant in the USA has been enrolled in the program. He was implanted with a chip about a year ago and his results have been even more impressive.
"I wouldn't hesitate"
In Paderborn, in the Ruhr valley region of Germany, Lars Hemme lives daily with a serious disability. Due to stunted muscular growth and disformed limbs, he is barely able to look after himself. He sits strapped into a wheelchair as he watches a video of the trials with Cathy Hutchinson and the thought-steered robot.
"I am fascinated by this. It does take a long time for the robot arm to move. But the fact that you can just steer the bottle over to you with your thoughts, that's fantastic," the 37-year-old told DW.
In his apartment, Hemme has a carer around the clock.
He says a robotic arm would give him the ability to get certain things done independently. Even if the financial cost was high, Hemme says he is sure he'd be interested in trying it out.
"Initially, I would probably be a bit uncertain about using this technology because someone would have to mess around with my brain and insert a chip," said Hemme. "Otherwise, I think it's a good idea. And I wouldn't hesitate to get the necessary transplant done."
An uncertain future
There's little doubt that thought-controlled robotics have the potential to improve quality of life for many people with disabilties.
Professor Patrick van der Smagt says he is confident that this robotic system can be used for most patients, but says the research is in its infancy.
"It isn't mature yet, this is a case study. I can't say that everyone will be able to be transplanted with this system in the next few years. But this technology will definitely be able to come onto the market at some stage, if the consumer interest is there."
Author: André Leslie
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany