Multitasking: a BMI to control a third robotic arm

Home Human enhancement Multitasking: a BMI to control a third robotic arm

How many times, in the grip of many things to do, you have wished you had an extra arm? Perhaps you can control it directly with your thoughts, no matter what your arms are already doing. This is the goal of the BMI (Brain-Machine Interface) developed by a couple of researchers at Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, in Japan. The subject can think of two tasks simultaneously and the interface can decipher which of these thoughts is addressed to the robotic arm, then perform the specific task.

Although we might think that such a technology could be useful in practice for people with disabilities, it actually shows a very interesting aspect even for the able-bodied. It seems that using such a device can improve the user’s multitasking skills, as shown in the research published in Science Robotics.

“Multitasking tends to reflect a general ability for switching attention. If we can make people do that using brain-machine interface, we might be able to enhance human capability,” says Shuichi Nishio, who developed the technology with his colleague Christian Penaloza.

Testing phase

Multitasking robotic arm
Image credits: Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory / ATR

The system, consisting of a series of electrodes placed on a headset and a robotic arm, is based on a series of algorithms capable of reading the electrical activity of the brain associated with different actions. In this way, by detecting the activity associated with a specific task, it is possible to inform the robotic arm so that it moves according to the subject’s thought.

15 volunteers were involved in testing the interface. Each of them was asked to balance a ball on a flat surface and, at the same time, use the robotic arm to grab and move a bottle. The test was conducted after recording the electrical activities of the brain, associated with those two specific tasks, in order to “train” the system to recognize the intention of the subject.

The results showed the division of the participants into two groups: those who were able to manage multitasking in an excellent way (85% of the time), those who were able to manage it in a worse way (52% of the time). According to the researchers, such a difference would not be attributable to the BMI, but to the ability of the subject to shift attention from one task to another.

Usually when you’re controlling something with BMI, the user really needs to concentrate so they can do one single task.

~Penaloza, research scientist at Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International


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Jacopo Ciampelli
Master Degree student at the University of Bologna, my passion for medicine and engineering has led me to biomedical engineering. I've always liked writing and I'm editor-in-chief for BiomedicalCuE, area of Close-up Engineering network, too. I collaborate with Vibre and I love working with BCIs because every day there's something new to discover.


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