Can robots tie their shoelaces? © Sebastian Lehmann

Can robots tie their shoelaces?

Dexterous robots who can tie their own shoelaces and play intricate piano solos have so far been the preserve of science fiction. But neuroscientists in Germany have brought this vision a step closer to reality.

To understand how the primate brain controls hand movements, researchers at the German Primate Center in Göttingen first trained rhesus macaques to grasp hold of objects of different shapes and sizes. The scientists used electrodes to monitor the monkeys’ brain activity as they gripped the objects, focusing on the cerebral cortex – the outer layer of the brain that plays an important role in memory, language and perceptual awareness.

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By comparing the monkeys’ brain cell activity to their hand movements, the researchers could predict the different grasping movements by looking at the neural signals alone. They then transferred the registered signals to a robotic hand, ‘teaching’ it fine motor skills.

This technology could teach robots how to tie their shoelaces, bake a cake or play an instrument. But for now, the neuroscientists are specifically targeting prosthetic hands that could restore paralysed patients’ ability to perform fine movements.

“The results of our study are very important for the development of neural-controlled prosthetic hands,” says Stefan Schaffelhofer at the German Primate Center. “They show where and especially how the brain controls grasping movements.”

Such prosthetic hands might not only be used to treat paralysis but also to create better robot companions. So maybe that robotic butler isn’t so far away after all…


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