Want to build better robots? Let me give you a hand with that.

Illustration by Katherine Duffy.

Illustration by Katherine Duffy.

It’s like something pulled from the pages of a science fiction novel – a scientist manipulating a hand to see how well his latest computer function works. However, this scenario is science fact.

University of Southern California professor Francisco Valero-Cuevas and his team of researchers are trying to build a computer program that simulates the way neurons interact with each other in the human spinal cord. To test their programs, the researchers connect a cadaver hand to wires that simulate human tendon’s and muscles. The ultimate goal is for the computer program to mimic human neural pathways so well that the robotics interacting with the cadaver can match the functionality of a live human hand.

Although writing code may seem far off from understanding neural pathways, Valero-Cuevas believes that biology and engineering have more in common than you may think.

“It turns out that we agree with something that Galileo said centuries ago: that nature is an open book if you only know the language in which it’s written, and the language is math,” Valero-Cuevas said in an interview with USC.

In the end, Valero-Cuevas and his team hope that their neuron-simulating computer chip not only creates more realistic artificial hands but also that their research will answer questions about evolution, treat neurodegenerative disease, and even build better robots.