News in Bionics: Restoring Sensation and Mobility!

TED_adrianne1It seems like I’ve writing endlessly about bionic prosthetics lately, thanks to the many breakthroughs that have been happening almost back to back. But I would be remiss if I didn’t share these latest two. In addition to showcasing some of the latest technological innovations, these stories are inspiring and show the immense potential bionic prosthetics have to change lives and help people recover from terrible tragedies.

For instance, on the TED stage this week in Vancouver, which included presentations from astronaut Chris Hadfield, NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden, and anti-corruption activist Charmiah Gooch, there was one presentation that really stole the stage. It Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a former dance instructor and a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, dancing again for the first time. And it was all thanks to a bionic limb developed by noted bionics researcher Hugh Herr. 

TED_hugh_herrAs the director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab, Herr is known for his work on high-tech bionic limbs and for demonstrating new prosthetic technologies on himself. At 17, he lost both his legs in a climbing accident. After discussing the science of bionic limbs, Herr brought out Adrianne, who for the first time since her leg amputation, performed a short ballroom dancing routine.

This was made possible thanks to the help of a special kind of bionic limb that designed by Herr and his colleagues at MIT specifically for dancing. The design process took over 200 days, where the researchers studied dance, brought in dancers with biological limbs, studied how they moved, and examined the forces they applied on the dance floor. What resulted was a “dance limb” with 12 sensors, a synthetic motor system that can move the joint, and microprocessors that run the limb’s controllers.

TED_adrianne2The system is programmed so that the motor moves the limb in a way that’s appropriate for dance. As Herr explained in a briefing after his talk:

It was so new. We had never looked at something like dance. I understand her dream and emotionally related to her dream to return to dance. It’s similar to what I went through.” Herr says he’s now able to climb at a more advanced level than when he had biological legs.

Haslet-Davis’s new limb is only intended for dancing; she switches to a different bionic limb for regular walking. And while this might seem like a limitation, it in fact represents a major step in the direction of bionics that can emulate a much wider range of human motion. Eventually, Herr envisions a day when bionic limbs can switch modes for different activities, allowing a person to perform a range of different tasks – walking, running, dancing, athletic activity – without having to change prosthetics.

TED_adrianneIn the past, Herr’s work has been criticized by advocates who argue that bionic limbs are a waste of time when many people don’t even have access to basic wheelchairs. He argues, however, that bionic limbs–which can cost as much as a nice car–ultimately reduce health care costs. For starters, they allow people to return to their jobs quickly, Herr said, thus avoiding workers’ compensation costs.

They can also prevent injuries resulting from prosthetics that don’t emulate normal function as effectively as high-tech limbs. And given the fact that the technology is becoming more widespread and additive manufacturing is leading to lower production costs, there may yet come a day when a bionic prosthetic is not beyond the means of the average person. Needless to say, both Adrianne and the crowd were moved to tears by the moving and inspiring display!

bionic_hand_MIT1Next, there’s the inspiring story of Igor Spectic, a man who lost his right arm three years ago in a workplace accident. Like most people forced to live with the loss of a limb, he quickly came to understand the limitations of prosthetics. While they do restore some degree of ability, the fact that they cannot convey sensation means that the wearers are often unaware when they have dropped or crushed something.

Now, Spectic is one of several people taking part in early trials at Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where researchers from Case Western Reserve University are working on prosthetics that offer sensation as well as ability. In a basement lab, the trials consist of connecting his limb to a prosthetic hand, one that is rigged with force sensors that are plugged into 20 wires protruding from his upper right arm.

bionic_hand_MITThese wires lead to three surgically implanted interfaces, seven millimeters long, with as many as eight electrodes apiece encased in a polymer, that surround three major nerves in Spetic’s forearm. Meanwhile, a nondescript white box of custom electronics does the job of translating information from the sensors on Spetic’s prosthesis into a series of electrical pulses that the interfaces can translate into sensations.

According to the trial’s leader, Dustin Tyler – a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University and an expert in neural interfaces – this technology is “20 years in the making”. As of this past February, the implants had been in place and performing well in tests for more than a year and a half. Tyler’s group, drawing on years of neuroscience research on the signaling mechanisms that underlie sensation, has developed a library of patterns of electrical pulses to send to the arm nerves, varied in strength and timing.

bionic_hand_MIT2Spetic says that these different stimulus patterns produce distinct and realistic feelings in 20 spots on his prosthetic hand and fingers. The sensations include pressing on a ball bearing, pressing on the tip of a pen, brushing against a cotton ball, and touching sandpaper. During the first day of tests, Spetic noticed a surprising side effect: his phantom fist felt open, and after several months the phantom pain was “95 percent gone”.

To test the hand’s ability to provide sensory feedback, and hence aid the user in performing complex tasks, Spetic and other trial candidates were tasked with picking up small blocks that were attached to a table with magnets, as well as handling and removing the stems from a bowl of cherries. With sensation restored, he was able to pick up cherries and remove stems 93 percent of the time without crushing them, even blindfolded.

bionic_hand_MIT_demoWhile impressive, Tyler estimates that completing the pilot study, refining stimulation methods, and launching full clinical trials is likely to take 10 years. He is also finishing development of an implantable electronic device to deliver stimuli so that the technology can make it beyond the lab and into a household setting. Last, he is working with manufacturers of prostheses to integrate force sensors and force processing technology directly into future versions of the devices.

As for Spetic, he has drawn quite a bit of inspiration from the trials and claims that they have left him thinking wistfully about what the future might bring. As he put it, he feels:

…blessed to know these people and be a part of this. It would be nice to know I can pick up an object without having to look at it, or I can hold my wife’s hand and walk down the street, knowing I have a hold of her. Maybe all of this will help the next person.

bionic-handThis represents merely one of several successful attempts to merge the technology of nerve stimulation in with nerve control, leading to bionic limbs that not only obey user’s commands, but provide sensory feedback at the same time. Given a few more decades of testing and development, we will most certainly be looking at an age where bionic limbs that are virtually indistiguishable from the real thing exist and are readily available.

And in the meantime, enjoy this news story of Adrianne Haslet-Davis performing her ballroom dance routine at TED. I’m sure you’ll find it inspiring!


Sources: fastcoexist.com, technologyreview.com, blog.ted.com

The Boston Manhunt: A Victory for Technology?

boston-marathon-bombing-suspects-2013It was announced yesterday that after an intense manhunt, a prolonged shootout, and the death of an MIT police officer, that the second and final suspect in the Boston bombing was finally captured. Identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, the eldest brother was killed during the shoot out in Watertown and the latter who was captured while in hiding under an overtunred boat in a nearby residence.

Naturally, there are still many questions about the two brothers when it comes to their motives and whether or not they had any help in the commission of this crime. But in the meantime, one can’t help but acknowledge the swiftness with which the suspects were identified and the case resolved. Considering the fact that the police had no leads and no one had come forward to take credit, the fact that the men responsible were captured and killed within four days is nothing short of astounding.

boston-marathon-bombing2So compared to past instances of terrorist acts – where the incident took place in a mass gathering and the perpetrators were mixed in with the crowd – what was different here? For one, the sheer amount of information that was provided by people who were on the scene. From torrents of photography to cell-tower information to locals’ memories, the police, FBI, and other investigators opened their investigation to spectator surveillance in a way like never before.

And in return, they received a mountain of data, which surprisingly proved quite helpful. Between the images submitted to the police from those who took pictures and video with their smartphones, PDAs and video cameras, and tips provided via Twitter and other social media, the police were quickly able to determine who the likely suspects were and how the bombing took place. After making their findings public, the suspects then fled, and committed the monumentally stupid mistake of drawing attention to themselves.

boston_bombing_manhuntAll this represented a modern twist on the age-old policy where law enforcement agencies consider the public’s eyes and ears as the crucial investigative asset. Just like with all cases, authorities opened their inquiry to account for what people saw and heard. The only real difference was that this time around, the Internet rapidly compressed the time it took for tips to arrive and get analyzed.

Mike Rolince, a retired FBI special agent who set up Boston’s first Joint Terrorism Task Force, recalls a time in the 90’s when the FBI was much more reticent about accepting information from the public and local police:

If law enforcement didn’t share any information — [as with bombers] Terry Nichols, Ted Kaczynski — if your intel is shared with no one, that is the consummate investigative challenge.

However, he acknowledges that things have since changed:

The great advantage here is the number of cameras out there. Without the cameras, I don’t know where we are.

boston-marathon-bombing-watertownBut of course, those cameras went way beyond the surveillance cameras that were in place downtown. They included every mobile camera in the hands of every person who happened to bring one. All of the information thus provided allowed the FBI and local police to turn a crime scene trampled by thousands and no leads into a solid case against two suspects and an active manhunt that led to their death and capture in four days time.

This was a victory for not only modern technology but the very democratic powers it is making possible. Much like crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, DIY research and biohacking, public surveillance is something which could very well turn the tables on terrorism. It could also go a long way to undermining fears about a surveillance-based Big Brother state, ushering in instead an era of public-government cooperation that provides for the common good.

Might sound a bit utopian, but it is a first and represents a big victory for all those who were fighting on the side of good in the midst of a heinous act of evil.

Source: Wired.com

Messages of Hope for Boston

boston-marathon-explosion-1I think it’s fair to say that the weekend bombing attack in Boston was a shock to us all. Worse yet was the horror faced by those who were at ground zero when it happened, men, women and children taking part in a public sporting event that was hurting no one and served no political purpose. The deaths and injuries sustained to these people who were simply out for a run with hundreds of their fellow Bostonians is an outrage to say the least.

And of course, there has been plenty of speculation and attempts at recrimination, the kind of thing that always follows in the wake of a terrorist bombing. Though no guilty parties have been identified and no one has come forward to claim responsibility, there are those who want to point fingers and start beating the war drums, demanding blood and vengeance for the terrible crime. At a time so soon after the tragedy struck, this kind of attitude can only add to the hurt and difficulty.

Boston_projectorAnd yet, in the midst of this tragedy, there are thing that remind us that there’s always reason for hope, like in how people overcome their differences in times of strife to show mutual love and support. A perfect example is how last night in Brooklyn, a glowing message of hope appeared on the face of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Here, New Yorkers were treated to a series of messages offering their support for the city of Boston in the wake of the Marathon bombings, such as “Brooklyn Loves Boston” and the Martin Luther King quote “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”

But here’s where it gets especially inspiring! The lights were the work of a van that was outfitted with special projection technology that was originally designed for the Occupy Wall Street protests. As a mobile offshoot of the “We Are The 99%” projections that were placed on the sides of skyscrapers some years back, this vehicle was planned for upcoming Tax Day, projecting the message “Tax Evader”. However, it quickly retooled the moment news of the bombings broke. Hence, what was originally intended as a message of protest promptly switched to one of support, peace and love.

boston-marathon-bombingAnd then there was another news story to come out of the carnage, something which reminds us that human beings are capable of exceptional good when the chips are down. With all the news about how social media has been used for evil (i.e. to document cases or rape or bully people into committing suicide), the Boston Marathon presented a side of social media that shows how effective it can be in a crisis.

Within seconds of the first bomb blast, pictures, video and news of the horrific event were pulsing over social networks. For many, this was how news of the attack first came to light, and first responders and police even used Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr and other networks to get valuable information out, like warning people to stay away from the crisis area. In times of mass panic, when conventional means of communication can be overwhelmed, this kind of response can be invaluable.

Boston Marathon ExplosionThe memes that quickly emerged from the event involved the sharing of photos and questions about how to reach loved ones when cell coverage was down in large parts of the Boston Area. Google immediately set up a “person finder” system for posting and finding information about specific people. And while major news outlets covered the casualties and law enforcement’s efforts to locate more bombs, citizens reached out to each other with the best factual information they could find.

Granted, there were some offensive memes, but by and large, the efforts of bloggers had the effect of providing real-time information on the bombing and allaying fears. Some even went as far as to correct misinformation and rumors spreading about the attack, about the bombers, and to place the events in a global context. One blogger reminded people of the recent bombings in Iraq which killed 37 people and left 140 injured. It says something about people when, even in the face of fear and sadness, they are able to remind people that there are some that have it worse.

Whereas many people think that social media is little more than a means of spreading rumors, gossip, or the hurtful trifecta known as FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), thus making a crisis situation that much worse, the speedy response and responsible use of social media sites in the midst of this crisis was actually very helpful and may have averted further problems. I for one hope this is a sign of things to come, how technology can and will be used responsibly to deal with challenges and extend help to those in need.

At this point, I hope this spirit of support, love and mutual assistance continues on into the foreseeable future. As 9/11 reminded us, terrorist attacks and tragedies can so easily become the fodder of extreme intolerance and questionable agendas. Thought it’s not clear yet who did this or why, I am hopeful that what President Obama said about finding the people responsible and holding them accountable proves true, and soon.

Sources: IO9, fastcoexist.com