China researchers say they developed tech to allow astronauts to control robotic equipment

Stephen Chen, South China Morning Post

Posted at Mar 26 2022 10:19 AM | Updated as of Mar 26 2022 10:20 AM

A research team with China’s manned space programme say they have developed technology that will allow astronauts to control robotic equipment using their brainwaves.

It could transform how astronauts operate the giant arm on the Chinese space station – a sophisticated piece of machinery with many flexible components.

The arm has so far been controlled by astronauts with a joystick and keyboard, which can sometimes be difficult in a weightless environment. Existing brain-control technology can control it with 40 to 80 per cent accuracy, which is below the standard needed in space – but a simulation of a new brain-computer interface has shown accuracy of above 99 per cent.

For comparison, the average accuracy of typing on a keyboard is only about 92 per cent.

The head-mounted device is said to be simple to use. “An untrained person can use it to issue commands with fairly high accuracy and speed,” said Professor Wang Congqing and his colleagues in a paper published last month in domestic peer-reviewed journal Computer Measurement and Control.

China was the first country to introduce brain control to space. During the Shenzhou 11 mission in 2016, Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong used a mind-reading device designed to aid their work.

Details of the experiment, conducted at the China Astronauts Research and Training Centre in Beijing, remained classified. But professor Huang Weifen, deputy chief designer of the system, told state media that experimental data suggested the technology had good potential.

“In future space exploration, humans and machines will work together,” she was quoted by state news agency Xinhua as saying. “A person no longer needs to use a keyboard, mouse or even joystick, but can use their brain and eyes.”

Tiangong, the Chinese space station, will make use of brain-powered tech after its main structure is completed, which should be by the end of the year, according to the Chinese space authorities.

Human brain activity is extremely complex, and a major challenge to brain-controlled technology is the separation of useful signals from background noise.

A person wearing Wang’s device needs to look at an animated robotic arm on a computer screen. Each part of the arm blinks at a unique rate, and when the eyes focus on a blinking component, it stimulates the formation of brainwaves with the same frequency.

This allows the machine to read the mind – but the useful signals are rare, and most of them are weak.

To improve the device’s performance, Wang’s team used artificial intelligence to help discover links between seemingly unrelated brainwave patterns to obtain additional information.

Thirty-five volunteers were enlisted to move or rotate a virtual robotic arm by thinking, with 11 of them completing the tasks without a hitch.

The average accuracy was 99.07 per cent, according to the researchers. It was marginally lower for the 27 volunteers who had no experience at all, still reaching 98.9 per cent.

The machine could recognise a command almost instantly. According to the researchers’ estimates, the “bandwidth” of information passed from the brain to the computer has reached 150 bytes per minute, nearly 10 times as much as was possible using the old approach.

It remained unclear when the technology would be used in space missions, but Wang’s team said that the device would soon be upgraded to handle more complex tasks and offer greater accuracy and speed.

Some Chinese factories have asked workers to wear a brain surveillance helmet to help them focus on their job and prevent work injuries.

Another study by Chinese researchers suggested that similar technology could enable industrial robots to work seamlessly with humans and speed up the operation of an assembly line.

In December, a research team with the National University of Defence Technology said they had developed a mind-reading helmet for Chinese soldiers. The futuristic helmet was designed for urban warfare, according to the researchers.

They said that it combined brain-control technology and augmented reality to help soldiers identify, track and eliminate enemies hidden in buildings.

The US Commerce Department’s industry and security bureau said last month that such technology would give China a cognitive advantage in the battlefield and threaten the national security of the United States.

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