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May 11, 2015 | by  | in Science |
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Set Your Legs to Autopilot

An “autopilot for humans”, which uses electrical muscle stimulation to alter a person’s path, has been developed by German scientist Max Pfeiffer. The device communicates via Bluetooth to electrodes connected to a person’s legs and electrically stimulates either the left or right sartorius. The sartorius muscle runs from the top of the thigh to the inner knee. The stimulation causes this muscle, the longest in our body, to contract. This pulls the leg into a wider stride and directs the person to veer either left or right, depending on which side was stimulated.

The device has been likened to cruise control, because although it can do the driving for you, you also have the ability to take back control of your legs at any time. As a person walks mindlessly, the slight contraction of the left or right muscle can allow the person to be directed along any path. However, this electrical current is small enough, such that if one makes a conscious decision to stop, or change their direction, the electrical stimulation from the brain will overpower that from the device, and the brain will regain control.

The project has been tested on students (naturally), who walked mindlessly around a park, while Pfeiffer used an app on his phone to direct their motion. Although the app is currently only rigged to work with another person in the “driving seat”, the hopes are that it can be developed to work with GPS. Doing so could allow you to get home at 2am from that random party in Mt Vic when your eyes are too blurry to read Google Maps.

Pfeiffer’s project is extremely exciting, as unlike the myriad of new technologies which demand our attention, this one allows us to step away from iPhones and Google Maps, and to take in our surroundings as we navigate unfamiliar territory. His project does however pose the question, “what next?”

As neuroscientist Greg Gage recently demonstrated, we now have the ability to control someone else’s body using only our brain and a relatively inexpensive DIY science kit. The neurons in our brain emit electrical discharge which travels around our body. Reading these electric currents can allow scientists to “listen” to the motor action potential in our brains. Gage demonstrated this spooky-science brain power by connecting electrode pads to two people’s arms, (let’s call them Sally and Sam). When Sally makes the decision to move her arm, the electric charge generated by the neurons in her brain, are carried to Sam’s arm, which causes an automatic response in his arm, outside of his control.

The potential for this is huge, and one hopes that a more sophisticated version can be developed in the future to help paralysed people get around. But for now we eagerly await the human cruise control app, which will allow us to keep our heads in our text books on the way to the test that snuck up far too quickly after midterm break.

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