Next week, hundreds of millions of viewers will tune in to watch the first match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, between Brazil and Croatia, in Sao Paulo. But before the Selecao begin their decimation of the Croats, viewers may witness the first public demonstration of a major breakthrough in prosthetic science: If all goes as planned, a young, paralyzed Brazilian will walk to center field and deliver the first kick by means of a mind-controlled exoskeleton.
As the Atlantic reports, the idea came from a nonprofit organization called the Walk Again Project, inspired by the work of Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist at Duke University who has been exploring the intersection between neuroscience and prosthetics for more than a decade. In 2008, he helmed a project where a female rhesus monkey in his lab at Duke manipulated the movements of a robot in Japan using only her thoughts.
For the planned World Cup opening act, Nicolelis hopes to outfit the exoskeleton "pilot" with an electrode cap concealed beneath a helmet. The cap will decode the subject's brainwaves and send them to a computer in the exoskeleton, which translates the brain signals to control the limbs of the apparatus. Powered by hydraulics, this robot suit has a battery allowing for approximately two hours of use.
"The main message is that science and technology can be agents of social transformation in the whole world," Nicolelis told the BBC. "That they can be used to alleviate the suffering and the limitations of millions of people."