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A Paralyzed Woman Flew an F-35 Fighter Jet Simulator Using Only Her Mind



Image credit: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, via Defense Tech

Not long ago, it was reported that a paralyzed woman was able to control a robotic arm just by her mind, which was made possible because of a novel brain-machine interface system and an experimental robotics program initiated by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It is amazing now that such woman, by using her thoughts mind, has been capable of   flying an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in a simulator. This newest breakthrough was made public by Arati Prabhakar, director of DARPA, at the New America Foundation’s Future of War conference recently.

Aged at fifty-five with two children, Jan Scheuermann, experienced kind of neurodegenerative disease, thus being paralyzed from the neck down back as early as in 2003. After ten-year paralysis, Scheuermann participated in an innovative trial at the University of Pittsburgh, where two tiny electrode grids were implanted into her brain by surgeons, who had precisely positioned these grids on a certain spot of the left motor cortex, which held responsibility for controlling movement of the right arm and hand.

With computer algorithms fixing into patterns of brain activity to thoughts about certain arm movements, Scheuermann was finally capable of controlling a robotic arm just by her own mind. As a result, she learned to be good at moving the arm, and it was quite soon that she could be capable of doing several things, such as moving objects around, eating a chocolate bar and even giving high fives.

It was quite interesting that Scheuermann could move both right-hand and left-hand prosthetic limbs, given that the chips were implanted by surgeons into her left motor cortex, which was typically accountable for controlling movement on the right side of the body.

As Scheuermann managed the implants so well, DARPA decided to further extend her participation in its project. However, in the words of Prabhakar, she was interested in doing something totally new and even taking a more challenging task. So DARPA offered her the opportunity to fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the newest fighter jet developed by Pentagon, in a simulator. The project leaders were glad to see that she did a marvelous task, considering that she had never sat in a cockpit before.

As Prabhakar said, instead of thinking about controlling the jet with a joystick in the way that pilots were usually trained, Jan was thinking about guiding it in a direct way. As for someone who had never received necessary training for a pilot, it was stunned that she was flying that simulator directly by the means of her neural signaling.

From this revolutionary system, it is clear that the technology is so advanced and our understanding of the brain and nervous system are so developed. However, no one is aware that science would mean to patients with paralysis in the future. At present, it is still some way before this technology is put into widespread application for the benefits of such patients. However, as Prabhakar said, being at that stage, they should take some ethical considerations as expected.

Talking of this project, Prabhakar went on, what they were doing was like opening the door. As they were looking forward to the future in which something would be really done to free the brain from the limitations of the human body, but they had to imagine something either good or bad on the each side of that door in their way towards further research and development.

Source: Washington Post and Defense Tech