Penn State researchers have designed a proof-of-concept system that allows construction robots to read workers’ minds and act accordingly with 82% accuracy. Workers wear devices that transmit the brain’s electrical activity to a cloud server, where the brainwaves are decoded and sent to the robot’s motion planner to prompt an action.




One day, a worker will only have to imagine giving a robot a specific command in order to have the robot carry it out. Think of the implications: you think it, and it gets done.

The robots of the not-too-distant future will be helping us with the jobs that would soon tire us out: things like repeatedly lifting heavy objects, building brick walls, or making delivery runs to restock supplies.But such human-robot cooperation won’t come without drawbacks, said Houtan Jebelli, assistant professor of architectural engineering at Penn State.

A worker suspended in a harness 30 feet in the air doesn’t have the ability to type in even a few commands for a robotic helper to follow, for example.The humans’ mental health can also suffer when they don’t trust the robots that surround them to perform as needed in such high-stakes situations, Jebelli said.

Anticipating these future scenarios, he and his team are working to design construction robots that act upon workers’ thoughts as they imagine a robot carrying out a specific action, like picking up a saw and moving it to another part of the build site. Their proof-of-concept system found that robots will act upon a workers’ thoughts with 82 percent accuracy.

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So how exactly do the robots carry out these nebulous “commands”? Because they can’t glean information from subtle forms of human communication, such as facial expression or bodily gestures, the robots measure look at that person’s brainwaves, said Jebelli.