Mark Runnacles

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have developed an algorithm that can read our intentions, and are calling it a "psychic robot."

In a statement published this week, the university explained that the algorithm can read intended actions that were suddenly interrupted, and correct course faster than humans. UIC's Justin Horowitz, lead author of the study discussing the algorithm, added:

Say you’re reaching for a piece of paper and your hand is bumped mid-reach—your eyes take time to adjust; your nerves take time to process what has happened; your brain takes time to process what has happened and even more time to get a new signal to your hand… So, when something unexpected happens, the signal going to your hand can’t change for at least a tenth of a second—if it changes at all.

The study was published last month in PLOS ONE. In the paper's abstract, the researchers note that this lag time is crucial to the algorithm's advantage over people:

The largest sensitivity arose mainly from uncertainty in joint stiffnesses. Humans cannot change their intent until they acquire sensory feedback, therefore we tested the hypothesis that a straight-line intent should be evident for at least the first 120 milliseconds following the onset of a disturbance. As expected, the intended trajectory showed no change from undisturbed reaching for more than 150 milliseconds after the disturbance onset.

Horowitz explained in a statement that the algorithm could be used to program a robot to act as a sort of external reflex, offering the example of a smart car reacting to an unintentional swerve:

The computer has extra sensors and processes information so much faster than I can react… If you know how someone is moving and what the disturbance is, you can tell the underlying intent—which means we could use this algorithm to design machines that could correct the course of a swerving car or help a stroke patient with spasticity.

That is, assuming psychic robots will do our bidding in the future.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.