By Kudra Maliro
Pierre Sedi is the hope of millions of Congolese living with disabilities in the country after developing brain-controlled robotic helpers for people who have lost the functions of their limps.
He has developed a prototype that captures brain activity to prompt a four-wheeled toy and hopes to extend the technology to develop robotic helpers for paralysed people.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has 13 million people living with disabilities, according to figures from the Congolese Ministry of Health, with most of them either being war victims, road accident survivors or people born with neurodegenerative diseases.
Sedi has just obtained his degree in Computer Engineering from the Polytechnic School of the University of Kinshasa (UNIKIN).
Sitting in front of a computer in the university's laboratory, he demonstrated how the technology instructs the toy to perform various tasks.
This gadget "allows to capture on the scalp the electrical activity of the brain which arrives to the surface of the scalp. These are micro-voltages which are amplified in the helmet, then converted into digital format for transmission to the 'computer," Sedi told TRT Afrika.
He was inspired by Hollywood productions such as the X-Men Evolution series in which Professor Xavier, the film's main character, controls objects from the human brain.
"Since my childhood, I have always been passionate about artificial intelligence... It is a concept that has always fascinated me and on which I wanted to look after my studies as a computer engineer. I worked on it for a year and defended my research work in January," he said.
Sedi is convinced that there is no limit to imagination and that much work remains to be done in the field of brain-machine interfaces.
His research has focused on reducing the time it takes to train subjects to use a brain-machine interface.
System to be perfected
"Levitating objects by thought or reading the minds of other people has been associated, over the ages, with magic since humans are not born with these abilities," he said.
Sedi's next challenge is to reduce the size of his invention, improve its piloting capabilities and increase its performance. His objective is to prepare it for general public use.
The youngest of four children said balancing hours working on the project and his daytime job has proved challenging. He needs the job for upkeep and partly finance his research work.
"For the development of my research, I unfortunately did not receive funding from the Congolese authorities. Scientific research is still struggling to find funding in my country, so we had to fund this research ourselves," said Sedi.
Jean-Marie Beya, the dean of the UNIKIN Polytechnic Schoo, is more optimistic, saying the poject illustrates the quality of the training offered at the institution despite the difficulties "that we have ".
"I tell myself that these engineers are bored because their level is too high compared to what we do in Congolese society. I would like the government to support us so that we go beyond what we we are doing to support the development of the DRC," said Beya.
Innovation for medicine
Sedi said brain-machine interfaces are currently being developed around the world for medical purposes, mainly to help people with neurodegenerative diseases regain motor skills and mobility.
Several Congolese interviewed by TRT Afrika say they are proud of Pierre Sedi and say they are surprised to discover the realization of this type of project in the DRC.
"I'm happy to see a Congolese get involved in this kind of project...It shows that our country is evolving in terms of technology," says Rebecca Kapinga, a resident of Kinshasa.
Sedi says he is pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of his Congolese compatriots towards his research work.
“My wish is to set up this system in a medical environment so that it really serves the people who need it the most,” he said.