Modern robotics provides many hopes in the field of medicine. Patients in rehabilitation can expect a closer working relationship with robotics, yielding impressive results.
The MAIA project team at the IDIAP Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence in Valais, Switzerland are designing and experimenting with robots intended to assist in medical rehabilitation. The controlling of machinery with mere thought power is becoming reality with the use of a helm attaching electrodes to the brain. The electrodes monitor the subjects neural network, interpret the signals in real time and activate the responding mechanisms. With such a system it is possible for a patient to drive and accurately steer his or her wheelchair, with nothing more than a bit of concentration.
The general aim of the project is to understand the mechanisms of human thought and then put them into active use. Because of the complexity of the neural processors in the human brain, the machinery must work on probabilities. While the highly-sophisticated system is still being developed, errors in the mechanical responses are recorded so that researchers can later make improvements. The devices, such as wheelchairs, are also equipped with sensors so that errors can automatically be corrected. It is envisioned that this technology can later be applied to prosthetic limbs.
The Robotic Team at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel are working towards a similar goal. They have developed several robot prototypes to assist patients in various ways. ALTACRO is a full scale walking robot, for example. Its walking is based closely on the movements of human walking. Eventually, it could assist patients who are learning to walk again. Another robot, the Soft Arm is, like ALTACRO, equipped with tubes of pressurised air acting as muscles, enabling the arm to lift heavy loads. ANTY, finally, is a robotic cuddly toy designed to respond emotionally, with eye contact and an animated face, to hospitalised children (already to be available in 2010).