Quadriplegic man feeds himself a Twinkie using robotic prosthetic arms controlled with his mind


A quadriplegic man with minimal movement and feeling in his limbs fed himself for the first time in 30 years – and he did so using his mind.

Robert ‘Buz’ Chmielewski was involved in surfing accident as a teen, but in 2019 he underwent a 10-hour surgery to have six electrodes implanted into his brain to control a pair of robotic arms.

Working with John Hopkins Medicine (JHM), Chmielewski is now able to operate both prosthetic arms and manipulate them to perform separate tasks, like feeding himself a Twinkie.

‘It’s pretty cool,’ said Chmielewski, whose sense of accomplishment was unmistakable after using his thoughts to command the robotic limbs to cut and feed him a piece of golden sponge cake.

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Robert 'Buz' Chmielewski was involved in surfing accident as a teen, but in 2019 he underwent a 10-hour surgery to have six electrodes implanted into his brain to control a pair of robotic arms and just showed the ability to feed himself

Robert ‘Buz’ Chmielewski was involved in surfing accident as a teen, but in 2019 he underwent a 10-hour surgery to have six electrodes implanted into his brain to control a pair of robotic arms and just showed the ability to feed himself

‘I wanted to be able to do more of it,’ he said.

When Chmielewski was 16 years old he was involved in a surfing accident in Maryland that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down, with minimal movements in his wrists and shoulders.

And at the age of 49, he volunteered for the research program with Johns Hopkins

When Chmeilewski underwent the 2019 procedure, the goal was to improve the sensation in his hand and give him the ability to operate robotic prosthetic arms. 

Each array is a two and a half inch square and has small spikes underneath.

Three electrodes connect to Chmeilweki’s left and right arms and the others are connected to brain areas that relay sensory feedback from the prosthetic fingers.

Just months after the surgery, he was able to control the robotic arms through a brain-machine interface developed by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). 

Pablo Celnik, M.D., director of physical medicine and rehabilitation at JHM and a member of the research team, said: ‘This type of research, known as brain-computer interface (BCI), has, for the most part, focused on only one arm, controlled from only one side of the brain.’ 

The scientists involved with the project set out to design a closed-loop system that combines artificial intelligence, robotics and a brain-machine interface.

This included holding the cake on the plate with a form while the other arm cut the dessert with a knife. And then the other arm allowed Chmielewski to feed himself the treat

This included holding the cake on the plate with a form while the other arm cut the dessert with a knife. And then the other arm allowed Chmielewski to feed himself the treat

With this system, Chmielewski was able to manipulate the two arms to perform different tasks.

This included holding the cake on the plate with a form while the other arm cut the dessert with a knife.

And then the other arm allowed Chmielewski to feed himself the treat.

David Handelman, an APL senior roboticist specializing in human-machine teaming, said: ‘Our ultimate goal is to make activities such as eating easy to accomplish, having the robot do one part of the work and leaving the user, in this case Buz, in charge of the details: which food to eat, where to cut, how big the cut piece should be.’

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‘By combining brain-computer interface signals with robotics and artificial intelligence, we allow the human to focus on the parts of the task that matter most.’

Each array is a two and a half inch square and has small spikes underneath. Three electrodes connect to Chmeilweki's left and right arms and the others are connected to brain areas that relay sensory feedback from the prosthetic fingers

Each array is a two and a half inch square and has small spikes underneath. Three electrodes connect to Chmeilweki’s left and right arms and the others are connected to brain areas that relay sensory feedback from the prosthetic fingers

Francesco Tenore an APL neuroscientist and principal investigator for the Smart Prosthetics study, said the next steps is to expand the number and types of activities of daily living that Chmielweski can demonstrate with this form of human-machine collaboration.

As well as, providing him with additional sensory feedback as he completes tasks so that he won’t have to rely on vision to know if he’s succeeding.

‘The idea is that he’d experience this the same way that uninjured people can ‘feel’ how they’re tying their shoelaces, for example, without having to look at what they’re doing,’ Tenore said.

Chmielweski did an interview right before Thanksgiving where he reflected on the significance of this research for individuals with limited mobility.

 Disabilities like his take away a person’s independence, he said, particularly their ability to eat by themselves.

‘A lot of people take that for granted,’ he said. ‘To be able to do this independently and still be able to interact with family is a game-changer.’



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