Robots on the Brain

I seem to have robots on my brain lately. In the past few weeks, I have written about the Defense Department's plans to have robots make up a full one-third of the U.S. military fighting force by 2015, iRobot's (Nasdaq: IRBT  ) enthusiastic embrace of open-source techniques in an effort to expand the number of things its robots might be used for, and Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) recent push into the field by creating a software platform that makes it easier for people to program their own robots.

Well, now I have come across even more interesting robotic news. LiveScience reported last week that scientists from the University of Washington -- which, I should note, is suspiciously close to Microsoft, geographically speaking -- have unveiled a robot that is controlled by human thought. A person who is hooked to a skull cap with some electrodes is able to control a robot's movement with nothing more than brain waves.

A short video demonstration reveals that the technology is still in the early stages of development, but it will only get progressively better over time. And as it does, it could radically transform how robots are used.

I remind readers of some of the exciting advances other researchers and scientists have recently made in the field of neural implant technology. In 2004, a Massachusetts company called Cyberkinetics installed a small sensor in the brain of a 25-year-old paralyzed man. The sensor enabled him to control a computer cursor, play a video game, and operate a TV remote control just by thinking.

Earlier this fall, The Washington Post reported a story about a woman who had lost both arms in accident and had to have them replaced by prosthetics. What made the prosthetics so unique is that they were robotic and that they, too, were controlled by thought. The technology works by reading the woman's neurons and translating them into electronic signals. These signals are then sent to a node on her chest, where the robotic arm receives the signals and turns them into the requested movement. It's pretty amazing stuff.

It might be easy to believe that such technology will either remain a curiosity or, at best, be limited to the severely disabled. But to assume such a limited nature would be to misread history. A number of technologies -- everything from the typewriter to the whirlpool -- were initially either envisioned or produced for people with physical ailments. However, as the benefits of those products became evident and then experienced among the masses, the mainstream quickly incorporated them.

Should we really expect robotic technology to be that much different? I don't think so. Others might disagree, but if they do, they should at least consider the possible advantages that robots could offer in helping America's aging baby boomer population maintain a sense of independence, by helping them live on their own for a longer time. They might also want to ask themselves why Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) has patented a brain-neural technology that allows a person to control a video game by thought. Is it because this is where they see the future of the video-gaming industry going?

The more I read about the advances being made in robotic technology, the more convinced I am that it is poised to become a mainstream technology sooner rather than later, and that projections of it becoming a $50 billion industry in 2015 -- up from $5 billion today -- are not that far-fetched.

I am further convinced that those numbers could grow even larger as robots start to become used in some unique ways as a result of brain-neural technology.

I mention all this because I would encourage investors looking for market-beating returns over the next decade to keep this emerging field at the top of their minds. After all, that's where robotic technology might very well be headed -- your mind. Literally.

Interested in other robotic Foolishness?

Microsoft is aMotley Fool Inside Valuerecommendation, and iRobot is aMotley Fool Rule Breakersselection. Interested in finding the next great robotic breakthrough? Sign up for afree 30-day trial ofRule Breakers, where David Gardner is always looking for companies on the cutting edge.

Fool contributorJack Uldrichwouldn't mind having a robot mind some of his business. He just wouldn't want it minding all of his business. Jack owns stock in both Microsoft and iRobot. The Fool has a strictdisclosure policy.


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