This High Schooler Invented a Low-Cost, Mind-Controlled Prosthetic Arm

By Margaret Osborne for smithsonianmag.com

Ten years ago, when Benjamin Choi was in third grade, he watched a “60 Minutes” documentary about a mind-controlled prosthesis. Researchers implanted tiny sensors into the motor cortex of the brain of a patient who moved a robotic arm using only her thoughts. Choi was fascinated by the concept, likening it to something out of a Star Wars movie.

“I was really, really amazed at the time because this technology was so impressive,” he says. “But I was also alarmed that they require this really risky open brain surgery. And they’re so inaccessible, costing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Years later, when the pandemic hit in 2020, Choi—a tenth grader living in Virginia—suddenly found himself with ample free time. The lab in which he’d planned to spend his summer researching aluminum fuels had shut down. But the documentary he had seen years earlier stuck with him, and he decided to use his spare time to build a less-invasive prosthetic arm himself.

In his makeshift laboratory on the ping-pong table in his basement (where he sometimes worked 16 hours a day!), Choi independently designed the first version of his robotic arm using his sister’s $75 3-D printer and some fishing line. The printer couldn’t build pieces over 4.7 inches in length, so Choi printed the arm in tiny pieces and bolted and rubber banded it together. In total, it took about 30 hours to print. This version worked using brain wave data and head gestures, and Choi posted instructions online for anyone to build their own.

He had some previous experience building robots and coding from participating in competitive robotics at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, even going to the world championships several times. Starting in ninth grade, he taught himself the computer programming languages Python and C++ by watching videos on Stack Overflow, a website for programmers.

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