Charles M. Higgins, Ph.D.

Electrical engineer and neurosciences researcher Charles Higgins sees a time in the future when scientists will design robots that have the powerful vision of a moth or dragonfly, or even have such insects built in them directly to carry out phenomenal tasks involving sight and motion detection. Science fiction, you say?

While Charles does admit to a healthy penchant for such flicks as Star Trek, Terminator, The Matrix and Source Code, his cutting-edge research today is steadily turning insect-inspired robotics into reality — work that is helping scientists harness and apply the electrical impulses of brain to machine. Progress in this realm, for example, has implications for developing better computerized prosthetics to help people who are paralyzed or have lost their limbs to regain function by enhancing their ability to control robotic limbs using only their thoughts.
The technology might also one day lead to development of machines that can see and smell the world just as living things do. In such pursuits, Charles and other researchers have been working to exploit the eyesight of moths, bumblebees, ordinary house flies and dragonflies because of these insects’ ability (honed through millions of years of evolution) to see and detect motion in superior ways.

Charles is an Associate Professor in the Department of Neuroscience with a dual appointment in Electrical Engineering at the University of Arizona where he is also leader of the Higgins Lab. Though he started his career as an electrical engineer, his fascination with the natural world has led him to study insect vision and visual processing, and to try to meld together the worlds of robotics and biology.

His research ranges from software simulations of brain circuits to interfacing live insect brains with robots, but his driving interest continues to be building truly intelligent machines.

“My laboratory conducts research in areas that vary from computational neuroscience to biologically-inspired engineering,” he says. “The unifying goal of all these projects is to understand the representations and computational architectures used by biological systems… These projects are conducted in close collaboration with ‘wet’ neurobiology laboratories who perform anatomical, electrophysiological, and histological studies, mostly in insects.”

More than three years ago he captured news headlines when he and his lab team demonstrated a robot they built which was guided by the brain and eyes of a moth. The moth, immobilized inside a plastic tube, was mounted on a 6-inch-tall wheeled robot. When the moth moved its eyes to the right, the robot turned in that direction, proving brain-machine interaction.

While the demonstration was effective, Charles soon went to work to overcome the difficulty the methodology presented in keeping the electrodes attached to the brain of the moth while the robot was in motion.

This has led him to focus his work on another insect species.

Says Charles: “What I’m doing now is working with dragonflies — they have this amazing ability to track small moving targets. So, instead of tapping directly into the brain we’re tapping into the spinal cord of dragonflies, and what I’m interested in is obtaining as much information about the visual system from the dragonfly’s nerve cord as I can. What I would like to be able to do is record real-time information from the dragonfly’s spinal cord, interpret what the dragonfly saw, and use that to steer a robot towards what the dragonfly saw. So the dragonfly’s brain and nervous system become a living visual sensor for a robot.”

Charles fell in love with engineering in the 1970s when he began watching reruns of Star Trek. His long-standing interest in building intelligent systems led him to receive the Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1993. He worked at MIT Lincoln Laboratory until 1996, when he returned to Caltech as a postdoctoral research fellow (in the Division of Biology) trying to build electronic versions of brain circuits. He joined the University of Arizona in 1999.

As futuristic as his work is, it is not surprising that Charles is a sci-fi fan, gaining much creative inspiration from such movies, especially those that use robots and other intelligent machines. “As a scientist, whenever I see a good movie like that, my mind goes to work on how I can these machines work, how to build them,” he says. “I really take a lot of inspiration from science fiction because people who are writing this stuff are not limited, like I am in many ways, by reality – by what’s now possible and what’s not.”

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