One of the most appealing promises of robotics is that mechanical prostheses could one day give paralyzed or otherwise disabled people a full range of mobility. Before we can replace our entire bodies with robots, we need to be able to do something as simple as drink coffee, which is exactly what research published in the latest issue of Nature can allow. The robotic arm in the video below is controlled by a neural interface. The participants in the study, "Cathy" and "Bob," were both left paralyzed and unable to speak by strokes, but they were able to move the arm by thinking, grasping foam balls successfully about half the time. Cathy, who has been paralyzed for 15 years and was implanted with the interface in 2005, was even able to pick up a thermos and drink from it in four of six tries.
The research group, made up of scientists from Brown University, previously designed an experiment that let subjects move a mouse cursor with their minds, but this shows a higher level of control than the cursor or this Swiss robot. It's also notable because it's been tested on permanently paralyzed subjects whose brains have adapted to the change, rather than temporarily anesthetized ones. At this point, the team's goal is to create better algorithms that improve speed and accuracy. It also hopes to prove that the implants (which have so far been given to seven people) are safe by recruiting more participants. You can find the original abstract here.