More than 75 million people worldwide need to use a wheelchair in order to get around. Those with severe paralysis may find it difficult to perform simple everyday activities like drinking from a cup or using silverware. In order to deal with these challenging acts, robot arms that connect to the user’s wheelchair have become the new trend. However, the current capabilities of the arms are very limited and they use a lot of electricity to function. Here is where a new development coming from a combined effort between The Open University in Israel and Intel comes into action.

A chip that can “smell” will operate the robotic arm

The Open University, ALYN Hospital (recovery center for teens), Intel, and Accenture are all collaborating on developing a robotic arm that uses advanced algorithms combined with Intel’s neuromorphic chip, Loihi, which is programmed to function like a human brain.

The joint venture has produced an arm that is twice as efficient as standard robotic arms but also coming at half the cost. The team currently working on the new assisting arm expects the price of the life-changing technology to drop by more than 70%, with a 48% increase in energy saving compared to competing products on the market today.

The arm is still in the developmental stage, including the development of the algorithm incorporated with the Intel neuromorphic smart chip. The arm still needs to go through vigorous testing and clinical evaluation with patients that suffer from Cerebral Palsy or lack of basic motor skills from ALYN Hospital.

As part of the arm testing, the patients will control the robotic limb by joystick, while researchers gather valuable data from the arm in action, so that they can better estimate the value which the patient will receive from using the device. If the research proves itself, then the team will figure out how to streamline mass production for the product, essentially changing the lives of millions around the globe.

When speaking about the unique technology involved, Mike Davies, Director of Neuromorphic Computing Lab at Intel explained that “neuromorphic computing constitutes a perfect partner to assisting technologies, mostly because of the low power use that it requires and the fact it learns and adapts to new situations in real-time. Using Loihi will provide a system that will improve the robotic arm’s capabilities, while also using cheaper material to build the robot, which should lower the cost of building and operating the arm times 10.”

The development of the arm comes as part of Intel’s community neuromorphic research, which is led by the Neuro-Biomorphic Engineering Laboratory at The Open University in cooperation with ALYN Hospital, with Accenture providing technological support and funding.

Who are you, neuromorphic chip?

The research processors Loihi were designed with the human brain as inspiration and are supposed to add valuably to Deep Learning and AI algorithms. Loihi was released by Intel back in 2017, and in 2018 established the Intel Neuromorphic Research Community (INRC), which receives access to Loihi’s cloud systems and to the Kapoho Bay system that it’s all based on.

Alongside Intel’s race to further miniaturize and jam more processing power on the processor's little real estate, the global giant has been investing over the past few years in AI computing chips. I  2019 Intel revealed a new system made up of 64 Loihi chips that can, according to the company, compute complex AI algorithms at incredible speed as well as increase efficient energy use.