Robots for the Brain
Tom Spendlove posted on November 04, 2014 |

Olaf Blanke has a straightforward but complicated goal – he wants to change the way we think about the brain and allow people more options for treating brain related injuries. Five hundred million people worldwide suffer from brain disease or mental disorders and few if any efficient treatments exist.

In his TedXCaFoscariU talk, Neuroprothetics of the mind – robots for our brain, Blanke presents three very important technologies that he feels will make brain science progress possible. First is industrial robotics – robots have amazing precision, efficiency and speed to perform tasks that humans are incapable or not interested in doing.

Next is computer science and virtual reality, especially in the fields of screens and display. The third field of research is neuroscience and neurology, fields where Olaf studies and does most of his work. The structure, stimulation and functions of the brain are continually being redefined and cataloged.

Olaf sees these three fields as important to the world’s ability to move brain research and technology ahead, but is frustrated that the disciplines are not talking to each other. He calls his solution Cognetics, a field at the intersection of wearable robots, neuroscience and cognition, and virtual and augmented reality.

Cognetics when framed by Blanke wants to know how a person experiences his or herself, and his or her body. What, in a brain, constitutes the self? Using head mounted displays along with robotic stimulation tools and digital scanners, Blanke found that when the subject sees itself projected on a screen an out-of-body experience can happen.

Experiments in cognetics started with pain – giving a patient a virtual functioning limb after stroke or amputation helps the brain to heal. Schizophrenic patients have used head mounted displays to lessen hallucinations and enter a quieter headspace.

This talk is full of huge ideas and concepts – Blanke coins the term ‘pacemakers of the mind’ to encompass everything that he’s working to do with robotics and brain research. He uses the example of the pacemaker’s evolution between 1958 and today, imagining what might happen in fifty years of neuroprosthetic development.

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