Scientists in Switzerland have developed a robot that can be controlled with naught but one’s very will alone.

Judging from reports, there wasn’t really anything all that impressive about the tiny robot making its way around the laboratory at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was barely a foot tall and could only travel around, turning left and right as commanded.

The impressive bit was how it was controlled – or rather, who was controlling it. The operator was Mark-Andre Duc, a resident in a hospital in the town of Sion, about 100km from the Lausanne lab. Remote-control robots are hardly anything new, but what made this interesting was that Mr. Duc is partially quadriplegic, having lost the use of his fingers and legs in a fall.

Mr. Duc would think about moving the paralyzed fingers on his right hand, and the robot would turn right. He would think about moving the paralyzed fingers on his left hand, and his little mechanical avatar would turn left. On a good day, says Mr. Duc, controlling his robot buddy is easy – but too much pain or a wandering mind can cloud the signal.

Still, scientists are hopeful that this technology will eventually allow people with severe immobilizing disabilities to interact with the world around them via robot avatars. While computer-mind-interface technology isn’t exactly anything new, this of course is exponentially more complex than, say, toys such as Mindflex. But technology marches ever forward, and even something like a foot-tall robot maneuvering around a lab can be a mark of progress.

“[This] will come in a matter of years,” said Swiss team leader Jose Millan.

If I were to ever become paralyzed, I can’t decide if I’d rather have a robot avatar, or do the whole Na’vi thing. Decisions, decisions.


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