The Robotics of Star Wars

May 8th, 2013:

This past Saturday was the Fourth of May, or better yet May the Fourth. Many of you know what I am talking about but if you don’t, try to complete the following sentence, “May the fourth (think force) __ ____ ___.” Get it now….? It was Star Wars day!

Within the related buzz on Saturday, I’m sure there was plenty talk of best movie/ best scene along with much debate. I am certain one scene frequently mentioned was the Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker standoff of The Empire Strikes Back. In this scene the iconic line, “Luke, I am your Father.” was coined and one of the most powerful reveals in cinema delivered. But, something also happened. Luke’s hand was lost via light saber during the encounter. This would be truly tragic in our reality but in Star Wars' galaxy no big deal. Later, we see a robot reconstruct Luke’s hand and voila good as new… maybe better. Pretty cool …huh?

Well it appears not only was Lucas’ grand vision vast, elaborate, and finely detailed, it may also have been a bit more clairvoyant than initially suspected. Technological innovations have been evolving rapidly over recent years and are appearing more and more Star Wars-esque as time goes by.

Take for instance a December 2012 airing of 60 minutes which included a woman named Jan. She is seen controlling a prosthetic arm with her mind. She shakes hands with her interviewer and moves her arm up and down with ease. She describes her thoughts to be no different than what we think when moving our natural limbs, it is second nature. What exists between her thoughts and her prosthesis is what is referred to as a Brain Computer Interface, aka BCI. In essence, a
computer runs an algorithm converting what she wants to do into a language the prosthesis understands. This interface allows her to feel as if there is a seamless link between her prosthesis and her mind. Meanwhile, according to an article in Wired Magazine, researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden are undergoing research to fuse mind-controlled prosthetic limbs directly to the incomplete limbs of patients. Hoping the direct connection will decrease the noise inherent in an indirect connection and lead to better response of the prosthesis and standard of living for the patient.

As for the shiny metal surgeon …  Although we do not have robotic doctors walking around, we are beginning to see robotics enter the operating room as well. Robotic assisted laparoscopic surgery is improving upon the effectiveness of traditional laparoscopic surgery and is only the beginning of what will be possible with similar technologies in the, hopefully, not so distant future. And to build upon this a bit more with my two cents, if you were to take BCI technology and apply it to a Surgeon and say for example the DaVinci, although not an autonomous robot, as seen in the movies, you would have a pretty amazing piece of equipment unifying the thoughts of the doctor with the movements of the machine.

Now are these advancements seen at the level in Star Wars? No… but, when the movies were released you may have been looked at a little funny if you went around talking about the
aforementioned technological advancements as matter of fact. Besides, it is always fun to look at the technology of today and think about what it could be in the future.

As for today, yes, we have cloud computing and peripherals of all forms linking us to this network ... yes, we are developing BCI's and in effect are beginning to link man with machine... and yes, we even have the capabilities to begin mapping the human brain... but… let’s get the record straight once and for all... creating the possibilities “the force” allows like controlling all that surrounds us with our minds and speaking to one another through our thoughts or even controlling another’s thoughts... well, that is just pure fantasy.  We all know that will never happen… right???

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