A man who was paralyzed in a bicycle accident 10 years ago, Now able to walk again thanks to wireless digital connection between brain and spinal cord.
The videos of Gert-Jan standing, walking and even climbing stairs are excellent.
Yes, he dragged his feet a little. Yes, he moves very slowly.
But he is in control. It was his thoughts, his intent to walk, that were being translated into action.
It was liberating for him. And not just because he can move his legs.
He said he now has the option of getting out of his wheelchair and having a beer with friends in a pub. Don’t underestimate the psychological importance of looking people in the eye at their level.
The Critical Role of Artificial Intelligence
This is all possible thanks to brain-computer interfaces.
Implanted in the brain, just above the motor control center, relays neural signals to a computer that uses artificial intelligence to pick out the important signals and decode intentions.
Commands are then sent wirelessly to a second implant in the spinal cord in the lower back, bridging a badly damaged nerve in Gert-Jan’s neck.
Then, a series of electrical signals stimulates the leg muscles in the correct order so that he can walk.
The key here is artificial intelligence.
More than a decade ago, I spent time in the lab with American researchers trying to decode the brain signals of a monkey that fed itself with a mind-controlled robotic arm.
Hundreds of signals bouncing across computer screens – it’s clear the challenge is detecting patterns in the data to gauge intent.
The Swiss researchers cracked this problem by carefully training a computer to pick out the signals that were important when Gert-Jan was thinking about a very specific muscle movement.
Transformational technology doesn’t come cheap
For one person, the technology is clearly transformative.
But now it needs to be extended to more people who are paralyzed by accidents and, the researchers hope, strokes.
It won’t be cheap, so access will be an issue. Is it just the wealthy who benefit, or those with insurance payouts?
But that’s for the future.
The breakthrough itself is amazing. The impact on paralyzed patients is enormous.