Super Strength For The Future You? | Future You | NPR


Elise Hu: We are exploring the future of the human body and what our bodies and brains will be able to do come 2050. All in a day’s work. Could mind-controlled robot suits help end some disabilities as we know them and lead the way to super strength? Let’s find out. This is Future You, with me,
Elise Hu. Singing: Dun, da, da, dun. Just within the past few years, researchers have figured out how to let
paralyzed people walk in robotic body suits simply by thinking about it. It sounds like science fiction, but using our brain signals to operate machines is something that’s not only possible but improving quickly. Neuroscientists say the promise of this means that the millions of people who are paralyzed from the waist down have the potential to regain mobility if the technology becomes accessible. It’s promising for people like 10-year-old Savion, who has never been able to walk. I asked him what life is like in the
fourth grade. Savion Braxton: I like reading, talking to my friends and I might get a new girlfriend one day. Hu: A new one? Braxton: Well, I mean, a girlfriend, a girlfriend. Hu: His mom named him after Savion Glover, a famous tap dancer. But he can’t use his legs. He was born with the spinal cord
defect spina bifida. To get up on his feet, he wants to try a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton. But they’re only in research labs right now. So the only way he can is if he’s accepted into a grant-funded study. What excited you about these? Braxton: That. That I could kick bad guys. Carmesha Braxton: Now that he’s older, he’s asking questions, you know, like about him being in a wheelchair. And I was like, you know, Savion, you know it’s … God made people different. You know, different. So he’s questioning, you know, why he’s in the wheelchair and stuff like that. Hu: Do you still hope that he can dance one day? Carmesha Braxton: Yeah, yes ma’am. Hu: Within the past few years, scientists
have developed brain-machine interfaces that allow paralyzed people to use a
robotic arm to touch a loved one for the first time in years or eat a piece of chocolate, as you’re seeing in this clip. Robotic exoskeletons go further. They let paralyzed people get up on their feet and walk around. But first, you have to train to power these things with your mind, which I get to do in my home
state of Texas. Hu talking on phone: It’s on Google. It’s on Google Maps. So once we’re set I think we’re just going to drive that way. Right. Scientists and engineers at the University of Houston are trying to help the actual future — children. They specialize in pediatric robotic limbs. Just like I’m about to do, the children learn how to make these robots move with their minds. Here we are. Jose Contreras-Vidal, Ph.D.: Hi, I’m Pepe. Hu: Oh, it’s nice to finally meet you. Contreras-Vidal: How are you? Thanks for coming. Hu: Oh, thank you for welcoming us. We’re so excited to check all this out. Contreras-Vidal: Oh, hi. Hi guys. This is the lab of Dr. Jose Contreras-Vidal and his research team. They’re in charge of plugging the computer into my brain. Before we came, the guys asked for my head circumference. They are going to put this sexy cap on. Check out my bonnet. Kevin Nathan: This is probably the extent of how it’s going to feel. Hu: OK, great. Nathan: At least from the needle standpoint. Hu: I mean, this feels as normal as getting gel injected onto 64 nodes of your head feels. The researchers are connecting me to a brain-computer interface, or a brain-machine interface. Here’s how it works. Singer: [Humming] 101. Hu: Think of brain-machine interfaces as a communication link between brain and device. They decode the neural activity in your brain, and then use that data to control external devices — machines. Part of the interface can be surgically implanted, or it can be noninvasive. You plug in by wearing a cap. The external device our brains can control in this case is a robotic exoskeleton. Oh, something’s happening. Whoa, whoa! This EEG cap reads the electrical activity from my brain associated with movement. To separate the walk signal from my brain from all the other noise these caps can read, I’m training the computer and its algorithms to know what the signals look like when I intend to move. So, we’re in the data-collection phase, before I control it with my mind. On the first beep [beep], I concentrate on thinking about moving. [Whirring of exoskeleton in motion.] On the next beep [beep], I think about stopping. We do this until the robot learns to obey me. Which brings us to … Singer: [Humming] Elise Tries. Hu: This is the moment that I actually have to control the exoskeleton, my robot suit, with my mind. I don’t know if I can do this because I’ve never done anything like this before. All right, here we go. [Beep.] [Whirring of exoskeleton in motion.] [Beep.] [Whirring of exoskeleton in motion.] [Silence. Exoskeleton stops.] Hu: Oh, cool. Atilla Kilicarslan, Ph.D.: That just worked perfectly. Hu: I did it! [Laughter, dramatic exhale.] That was awesome. Yeah, it’s like, feels like a superpower. A lot of performance anxiety. [Laughter.] OK. As always, we’re curious about where this
technology could go, so we asked Attila to play “In The Year
2050, BMI Edition.” Singer: [Humming] In the year 2050. Hu: To go through this exercise, we asked him to give us four super-scenarios for the world 30 years from now. First up, what’s a superhuman ability that might be possible in the year 2050? Kilicarslan: The exoskeletons will improve. It’s unavoidable. It’s like the cell phone. I mean, you used to carry your cell phone, which is like 10 kilograms weight, and then now it’s in your back pocket, right? And it’s wireless. If you’re a firefighter, and if you need to lift something really heavy and save lives, then why not? By all means, go ahead and, you know, augment the human capability there. Hu: Where do humans end, and where do machines begin? Where’s the line? Kilicarslan: Well, you know, that’s a very, very hard question. I guess it’s a reserved question for philosophers. Hu: Fair enough, Atilla. Fair enough. So we took the question to Duke University professor Dr. Miguel Nicolelis. He’s not a philosopher but is
one of the fathers of brain-machine interfaces. He’s pioneered invasive, or implanted, brain-machine interfaces for years. In 2014, he showed off a breakthrough. He developed a noninvasive brain-machine interface that let a paraplegic person kick off the World Cup in a robotic exoskeleton. He gets to pick up where Atilla left off. What about this super thorny blur of humans and machines? Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, Ph.D.: Our brain is extremely malleable. In the studies where we did this control of robotic arms, in a few hours, this robotic
arm was being assimilated by the brain of their subjects as an extension of the
sense of self, an extension of the body of these subjects. That is affecting the definition that the brain creates for our own bodies, our own sense of self. What is the border that calls us human? You know, that defines us as human that we are willing to cross? I’m not so sure that I want to cross the final border. Hu: What’s a super-villain possibility? Nicolelis: The weaponization of the brain. Of using brain-machine interfaces to control new
weapons and new types of devices that can harm large numbers of people. So I would hate to see this move into a domain where it has primarily military applications. Hu: And what’s super-likely to happen with this technology? Nicolelis: You’re going to see people walk in New York with an exoskeleton controlled by their brain. And you are not going to know that they were victims of a spinal cord injury because, you know, they’ll be walking side by side with you and crossing the traffic lights and being run over by cars, you know, in New York as all of us are. Hu: This is where we wanted to show you footage of Savion walking in an exoskeleton for the very
first time. But the Houston team didn’t get the research grant to custom 3D-print an exoskeleton for him. The one I tried was for adults only. So I gave him a call to see how he was feeling. And that’s the current reality for this technology. Today, for Savion and his family, the future feels far away. But the researchers are hoping
advancements come fast. That’s where we are right now, deliberating
the wonder of these discoveries but also their weight. We hope you’ll follow the future along with us with Future You episodes dropping monthly. You can get them fresh by
subscribing to NPR on YouTube or by going to NPR.org/futureyou. OK, see you next time. I’m about to lose my sexy hat. Nathan: All right you ready for this to come off? Hu: Ah, all right. Goodbye! Nathan: It’s a weird feeling. Hu: Goodbye. Aw. Now you can’t read my thoughts anymore. This has been an unusual day at work. But I have such a sense of accomplishment about it. All my mind control.

20 Replies to “Super Strength For The Future You? | Future You | NPR”

  1. I think Elise Hue (sorry if I'm spelling it wrong) is doing a great job of promoting NPR on YouTube. But it's disingenuous. NPR'S member stations (at least here in New York) is little more than hating on conservatives like me.

    You guys want to project this image you're showing in this video, that's great. But I wish NPR would metaphorically bash a few heads at WAMC and WNYC and demand a bit of ideological fairness from them.

  2. What are the chances of settling up a GoFundMe for Savion “to dance”? I don’t know how to do that but I would gladly kick-in some money.

  3. The quality of this video was outstanding, visual effects and clearness of audio. In my perspective, a script was not perfectly developt it was nice to have a potential patient but it wasn't in cohesion with the rest of the content. The script was also delivered with nice, understandable and enthusiastic narration
    Thank you for this series I enjoy this ep

  4. I like that the brian operated hand was used for chocolating. Though that seems like if they want to test sensitivity they should have something like a pen and income taxes…. though that could get you in front of an ethics panel…..

  5. Can’t wait for the day that kids like him will be able to walk around like anyone else. Cybernetics can’t advance soon enough.

  6. Mind controlled robots? And Yet… they can't make filters that work for water?
    https://www.npr.org/2019/08/13/750806632/newarks-drinking-water-problem-lead-and-unreliable-filters

    Maybe a tecky can explain what the problem is?
    The future seems like the SOS.

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