Teen's robotic project leads to meeting with Obama

Anand Srinivasan is no stranger to science fairs. The Roswell High School 10th-grader has been entering them — and winning awards at the state and national level — since kindergarten.

None of the honors was as thrilling as the one Srinivasan received last month: the chance to attend the 2012 White House Science Fair. Srinivasan was invited after being named a finalist in the Google Science Fair, a worldwide online competition.

For his project, he built a better functioning robotic arm. Srinivasan talked to The Atlanta-Journal constitution about his project and his chance to explain it to President Barack Obama.

Q: Can you tell me about your project?

A: The goal was to create a more robust, intuitive and easy-to-use brain-computer interface that could potentially be used to manipulate a prosthetic arm using thought alone.

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Q: How does it work?

A: Electrical signals from the brain show certain patterns that correspond to certain motor movements such as moving your right elbow. My project involves the creation of a signal processing software program that can more accurately filter and classify those electrical signals and detect specific patterns. These patterns then could be mapped to the functions of a robotic arm. It can tell the robotic arm, move to this angle, this joint.

Q: You made that happen?

A: To test it out in the real world, I built a robotic arm and I had an electroencephalograph (EEG) — a device that measures brain signals — sitting on my head. I wrote some code to channel the data from that device into the program and back into the robotic arm to see if it moved. And it did!

Q: Do you see your project advancing the research on prosthetics?

A: Yes. Eye movement, neck movement or any kind of electrical activity from the brain can drown out vital signals. By implementing an equation I derived to construct a filter, my program was able to “remove” noise more efficiently and accurately. The higher the accuracy and filtration of the brain signals, the easier a prosthesis is to use and the fewer involuntary movement and processing errors. It feels more natural.

Q: What inspired your project?

A: I read an article a couple years ago about Aron Ralston, who lost his arm [in a climbing accident in Utah]. [Ralston was the subject of the movie “127 Hours.”] He lives life with a prosthetic limb. But, as a climber, I’m sure it doesn’t allow him to live life as he would like to.

Q: What did you learn from your project?

A: Just to get the theory to facilitate the experiment, I had to take online courses from universities. I gained a lot of skills that will help me succeed in future science fairs.

Q: How was your trip to the White House?

A: It was amazing — like going inside a castle. My project was positioned with a view of the front lawn. When the president came through, he was very encouraging and seemed very interested in the work we had all done. He asked me about which kind of groups could benefit from my project, for example war veterans and amputees.

Q: What’s next?

A: I am doing a lower-limb robotic self-balancing exoskeleton. It is like wearable robotic legs, not just for people who have lost legs but also for those who have legs but can’t walk for some reason. It can make decisions on where and when to walk on its own.

Q: Do you stink at any subject?

A: There are some subjects I like more than others, but I generally try to make sure I do well in all my classes.

Q: A lot of kids are afraid of science or don’t like it. What would say to them?

A: Science is not something that really can’t be hated or loved — it is the art of asking questions. If you are curious about a certain subject, pursue that subject and soon you will find yourself in a field that you didn’t think was science but really is. It is about curiosity, passion and a love of learning. All of us have that.

The Sunday conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at ann.hardie@ymail.com.

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