Just days after wrapping up our Brilliant Ten issue—in which we publish our annual roundup of the most impressive young scientists in the United States—PopSci learned that one of our picks (as well as one of our finalists) had become the recipient of a 2007 MacArthur "genius" grant. Yoky Matsuoka initially impressed our editors with the skill and finesse with which she handles one of the most challenging issues facing robotics today.
"Not only does she build advanced robots, she tackles the more difficult problem: making them work with us," says Executive Editor, Michael Moyer. "Her work on direct control of robotic limbs via brain waves is pushing robotics into a new generation of complexity and power." Below is an excerpt from our forthcoming article—learn more about Matsuoka and the rest of the Brilliant Ten when the issue hits newsstands next month.
Yoky Matsuoka grew up dreaming of becoming a top-ranked tennis pro, but she wasn't your average jock. She spent a lot of on-court time pondering how her brain was controlling her hand, allowing her to smoothly swing her racket at just the right time and angle. More than a decade and several mechanical hands later, Matsuoka is still chasing the same question. But now she's pursuing it by trying to build the ultimate prosthetic—a fully functional replica of the human hand, controlled directly by the brain.
Matsuoka, who in graduate school built the hands for MIT's famous humanoid robot COG, is a trailblazer in brain-machine interfaces, the still-experimental effort to control external devices through brain signals. Her new project aims to teach a monkey how to use a three-fingered version of the human hand. The prototype has artificial versions of all the tendons and muscles controlling our thumbs and middle and ring fingers.
In the first experiment, the monkey will be seated before a bottle containing food. Its own arms will be strapped to its sides, and electrodes inside its brain will be wired through a computer to a robotic arm with Matsuoka's artificial hand on the end. The computer will interpret the monkey's brain signals and move the artificial arm and fingers accordingly. If all goes well, the monkey should be able to control Matsuoka's creation with its thoughts, opening the bottle and procuring its snack.
Other scientists are working on mind-controlled prosthetics that would translate these signals into basic actions, like grasping an object, but Matsuoka wants all the coin-rolling-over-the-knuckles capabilities of the real deal. Her eventual goal is to create a pop-it-on-and-go prosthetic for humans—like the kind that Luke Skywalker receives at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. She points out that for the average amputee, the hand might be lost, but the neural signals dispatched to control it are still flowing fine. "Your brain could still do exactly the same thing it had been doing," she says, "but naturally control this new mechanical hand."—Gregory Mone