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From Honda, a Mind-Reading Robot

Don't expect to see it in a car at your neighborhood Honda (HMC) dealer soon, but Japan's No. 2 automaker is working on some pretty nifty technology that can control robots by the power of thought alone. At a Tokyo briefing on Mar. 31, the company introduced reporters to a system that reads people's minds—and then allows those people to control a bipedal robot. According to the company, the robot, named Asimo, has a 90% success rate at recognizing and then carrying out four commands.

Honda reassures doubters that its "non-invasive" technology needs no special training and doesn't require the installation of electrodes inside people's heads. To control Asimo using Honda's "Brain-Machine Interface," a willing human just has to wear a special helmet that is connected to a large box of top-secret machinery. The system, developed by Honda and partners Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International and Shimadzu, then combines two techniques called electroencephalography (EEG) and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) to measure brain activity.

The first, EEG, measures electrical currents within the brain, while NIRS measures cerebral blood flows. Together, Honda could train a human in a few hours to make Asimo understand and copy four different simple commands—raising the left hand or right hand and moving one's legs or tongue—just by thinking about it. (In the last case, as Asimo doesn't have a tongue, he instead raises his right hand to his mouth). The company said this was much more accurate than a previous system, called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which required the person to undertake the action as well as think it. The new tech is also easier to use because the machinery is less constrictive.

Bewildered Audience

In time, Honda hopes to develop the technology for more practical purposes, such as opening a car's trunk while carrying shopping bags, operating air-conditioning units by mind control, or instructing home robots around the home to do chores. "When your hands are full doing the dishes, you could have a robot give you a hand watering the plants [just by thinking]," Tatsuya Okabe, senior scientist at the Honda Research Institute, told a slightly bewildered audience.

Somewhat disappointingly, Honda didn't demonstrate its technology at its offices. The company cited a shortage of space and fears that its test patient might be distracted under pressure. However, it plans to offer future demonstrations and did at least show a video. In the short clip a person wearing a helmet was shown a card instructing him to think about one of the four possible movements. A few seconds later, after his head had been read, Asimo responded by raising his right arm. That movement corresponded to the instruction on the card.

Decades will go by before the technology can be used in everyday life. One problem is that brains vary from person to person, which is why it takes several hours of preparation before the system can begin recognizing an individual's brain patterns. Another factor is that there is a delay of about seven seconds between thinking the command and Asimo's doing it, and the machinery is still quite large. Then there's the challenge of reading more complex information. Recognizing the brain pattern for moving a person's right arm is relatively straightforward compared with Okabe's suggestion that Asimo could be instructed to water plants around the home. For example, would the robot owner have to think about watering the plants as a single exercise or break it down into multiple processes? And what about driving a car by brain power alone? "I don't want to deny the possibility [of driving a car by mind control], but there are many challenges," said Yasuhisa Arai, director of Honda's R&D arm. "Practical uses are still way into the future." He declined to say how far.

More Pressing Concerns

Honda's shareholders might also worry if the sums spent on developing the company's brain interface make sense given the current downturn. The company doesn't disclose how much it spends on its mind-reading tech, but no one can deny times are tough. Reports in Japan said Toyota (TM), which, unlike Honda, will make a loss for the financial year just ended, will cut its dividend. Honda, which is doing better than most, is cutting back on production, has laid off temporary workers, and recently delayed construction of a new plant in Japan. The company has also dropped its sponsorship of Formula One.

So why is Honda doing it? "It's a difficult question," says Arai. "Our machines are for people to use, so we think about [people' needs]. Machines have to work the way people wish."

Rowley is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Tokyo bureau.

Rowley is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Tokyo bureau.

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