Redefining Humanity



Amazing Human Exoskeletons


TED Talk: Berkeley Bionics

POSTED BY: Evan Ackerman /Thu, March 31, 2011

We were on hand when Berkeley Bionics introduced their eLEGS exoskeleton last October, and there’s no doubt that it’s a pretty amazing piece of hardware. The same company is also responsible for the HULC exoskeleton, which they’ve licensed to Lockheed Martin. If you’re already familiar with Berkeley Bionics’ stuff, there isn’t too much new in the presentation, but it’s always great to see these incredible exoskeletons in action:


Incidentally, media coverage of the eLEGS launch focused extensively on how the exoskeleton had the potential to “free” people with disabilities from what they seemed to assume is some kind of lousy and pitiable quality of life, which is certainly not the case. I’d encourage you to read this wonderful article by Gary Karp on the subject, and also consider how sometimes, people with “disabilities” can actually be super human in some ways.


Eythor Bender: Berkeley Bionics’ CEO

Eythor Bender is the CEO of Berkeley Bionics, which augments humans with wearable, powered and artificially intelligent devices called exoskeletons or “wearable robots.”

Why you should listen to him:

Eythor Bender of Berkeley Bionics brings onstage two amazing exoskeletons, HULC and eLEGS — robotic add-ons that could one day allow a human to carry 200 pounds without tiring, or allow a wheelchair user to stand and walk. It’s a powerful onstage demo, with implications for human potential of all kinds.

User of the HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier) can carry up to 200 pounds for hours and over all terrains. eLEGS, an exoskeleton for wheelchair users, powers paraplegics up to get them standing and walking.

Bender has fostered innovation with bionic and orthopedic technologies throughout his career, taking them from unconventional approaches to sustainable, FDA-approved products that help individuals participate in their community. Such was the case with the boomerang-shaped prosthesis Cheetah Flex-Foot by Ossur, worn by the history-making bilateral amputee Oscar Pistorius. Bender’s team fought for, and won, Pistorius’ right to compete in the Olympics.




Aimee Mullins On Synonyms For Adversity




Aimee Mullins: Athlete, Speaker


A record-breaker at the Paralympic Games in 1996, Aimee Mullins has built a career as a model, actor and activist for women, sports and the next generation of prosthetics.

Why you should listen to her:

Aimee Mullins was born without fibular bones, and had both of her legs amputated below the knee when she was an infant. She learned to walk on prosthetics, then to run — competing at the national and international level as a champion sprinter, and setting world records at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta. At Georgetown, where she double-majored in history and diplomacy, she became the first double amputee to compete in NCAA Division 1 track and field.

After school, Mullins did some modeling — including a legendary runway show for Alexander McQueen — and then turned to acting, appearing as the Leopard Queen in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. In 2008 she was the official Ambassador for the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival.

She’s a passionate advocate for a new kind of thinking about prosthetics, and recently mentioned to an interviewer that she’s been looking closely at MIT’s in-development powered robotic ankle, “which I fully plan on having.”

“the most amazing part [of MIT’s h2.0 conference] was a talk by aimee mullins, an athlete, a model and an actress with both legs amputated below the knees. she compared prosthetic legs to eyeglasses, and in the same way that we wear designer eyeglasses she has designer legs (she was wearing her 4-inch heel legs for the talk). she made it clear that with enough attitude you could pull off anything as she left the crowd dumbstruck with her presence.”




Biomedical / Bionics

Dean Kamen’s “Luke Arm” Prosthesis Readies for Clinical Trials

DARPA may decide the fate of Dean Kamen’s next-generation prosthetic arm

By Sarah Adee



PHOTO: Dean Kamen: DEKA Research; Robo Hand: Dirk van der Merwe




Dean Kamen’s ”Luke arm”—a prosthesis named for the remarkably lifelike prosthetic worn by Luke Skywalker in Star Wars —came to the end of its two-year funding last month. Its fate now rests in the hands of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which funded the project. If DARPA gives the project the green light—and some greenbacks—the state-of-the-art bionic arm will go into clinical trials. If all goes well, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives its approval, returning veterans could be wearing the new artificial limb by next year.


The Luke arm grew out of DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, which was created in 2005 to fund the development of two arms. The first initiative, the four-year, US $30.4 million Revolutionizing Prosthetics contract, to be completed in 2009, led by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., seeks a fully functioning, neurally controlled prosthetic arm using technology that is still experimental. The latter, awarded to Deka Research and Development Corp., Kamen’s New Hampshire–based medical products company (perhaps best known for the Segway), is a two-year $18.1 million 2007 effort to give amputees an advanced prosthesis that could be available immediately ”for people who want to literally strap it on and go.” Kamen’s team designed the Deka arm to be controlled with noninvasive measures, using an interface a bit like a joystick.


On the second floor of the mill complex that houses Deka, a 650-square-meter space is dedicated to realizing the Luke arm. Right past the entrance is a life-sized Terminator figure missing its left arm; in its place is the same kind of harness that patients wear when testing the Deka arm. It’s there for inspiration. The Terminator is in line for its new arm behind volunteers like Chuck Hildreth, who come to Deka to help the engineers prepare for clinical trials.

Hildreth, 44, lost both arms 26 years ago, when he was electrocuted while painting a power substation. His badly burned right arm was so damaged that doctors even had to remove the shoulder blade. They saved part of Hildreth’s less-damaged left arm, amputating about halfway between the shoulder and the elbow.


Since then Hildreth has been wearing—or more accurately, not wearing—a traditional prosthesis. As Kamen discovered when he talked to patients in rehabilitation clinics and at VA hospitals, after the initial shock of amputation wears off, usually within a year or two, patients stop wearing their prostheses. Even extreme levels of amputation don’t much curb this tendency. Wearing the burdensome prosthetic is simply not justified by the small amount of assistance it provides, says Hildreth. ”It gets sweaty and slippery,” he says. He’s gotten so used to living without arms that he changes the blades in his lawn mower with his feet.


When DARPA director Tony Tether and Revolutionizing Prosthetics program manager Colonel Geoffrey Ling approached him in 2005, Kamen says he thought they were crazy—”in the good kind of way,” he says. There was no financial incentive to create a next-generation prosthetic arm. The research and development costs were enormous. Unless funded by DARPA, no private company would take such a risk for such a comparatively small market (in the Americas, about 6000 people require arm prostheses each year). Kamen spent a few weeks traveling around the country interviewing patients, doctors, and researchers to get an idea of the current technology—and soon saw the deficit in available arm prosthetics. He was swayed by the discrepancy between the current state of leg prostheses and that of arm prostheses. ”Prosthetic legs are in the 21st century,” he says. ”With prosthetic arms, we’re in the Flintstones.”


So he set out to reinvent the prosthesis that has been pretty much the same since the U.S. Civil War. Until now, a state-of-the-art prosthetic arm has meant having up to three powered joints. However, since this type of arm is frustrating to control and doesn’t provide that much functionality, most users still opt for the hook-and-cable device which has been around for over a century. In either case, these prosthetics only have three degrees of freedom—a user can move the elbow, the wrist, and open and close some variant of a hook.


The timing was good: microprocessors had gotten small enough, and power consumption efficient enough, to make it possible to cram the control electronics, lithium batteries, motors, and wiring into a package the size, shape, and weight of a human arm—about 3.6 kilograms. Still, the engineering was tough, says program manager Ling. ”You’re asking an engineer to build an arm that can do what your arm can do, but they’re confined to a package the size of—an arm. In addition to being the right size and weight, it also has to look like an arm!”


In order to make a better arm, Kamen first had to figure out what was wrong with the old one. Part of the reason the technology was still in ”the Flintstones” was a lack of agility: a human arm has 22 degrees of freedom, not three. The Luke Arm prosthetic is agile because of the fine motor control imparted by the enormous amount of circuitry inside the arm, which enables 18 degrees of freedom. The engineers fought for space inside the arm and created workarounds when they couldn’t have the space they needed, such as using rigid-to-flex circuit boards folded into origami-like shapes inside the tiny spaces, which are connected by a dense thicket of wiring.


The arm has motor control fine enough for test subjects to pluck chocolate-covered coffee beans one by one, pick up a power drill, unlock a door, and shake a hand. Six preconfigured grip settings make this possible, with names like chuck grip, key grip, and power grip. The different grips are shortcuts for the main operations humans perform daily.

The Luke arm also had to be modular, usable by anyone with any level of amputation. The arm works as though it had a very complicated set of vacuum cleaner attachments; the hand contains separate electronics, as does the forearm. The elbow is powered, and the electronics that power it are contained in the upper arm. The shoulder is also powered and can accomplish the never-before-seen feat of reaching up as if to pick an apple off a tree.


It must be less than what a native limb would have weighed, because in an amputee the human skeletal system can no longer be used as a method of attachment. Instead, for amputations above the elbow, a user is strapped into a kind of harness. Deka engineers modeled the arm based on the weight of a statistically average female arm (about 3.6 kg), including all the electronics and the lithium battery. Amazingly, titanium, the legendarily light material, is too heavy to keep the arm under its weight limit—it can’t be made thin enough without bending—so the arm is mostly aluminum.

Kamen’s group found that the discomfort caused by the arm socket, where the prosthesis connects to the body, is one of the crucial reasons Hildreth and others stop wearing their prosthetics. The traditional connection method is designed to create the greatest possible surface area connecting the native limb to the prosthetic: basically, the residuum—the amputee’s stump—is stuffed into the prosthesis. But the strain of normal use often results in a sweaty, slippery connection that makes proper use of the prosthesis nearly impossible. It can also be painful. Deka’s new socket was designed to be used with the Luke arm, but it can also improve traditional prostheses.


The last piece of the puzzle was the user interface for controlling the arm. DARPA stipulated in Deka’s contract that the interface must be completely noninvasive. However, Kamen says, his engineers created the arm to support any means of control. When a Deka engineer tests the arm via a linked exoskeleton, the arm can replicate almost every subtlety of human movement. Of course, real users will not be operating a prosthetic with an existing limb: the exoskeleton merely showcases the arm’s potential.


Deka worked closely with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where neuroscientist Todd Kuiken has had recent successes in surgically rerouting amputees’ residual nerves—which connect the upper spinal cord to the 70 000 nerve fibers in the arm—to impart the ability to ”feel” the stimulation of a phantom limb. Normally, the nerves travel from the upper spinal cord across the shoulder, down into the armpit, and into the arm. Kuiken pulled them away from the armpit and under the clavicle to connect to the pectoral muscles. The patient thinks about moving the arm, and signals travel down nerves that were formerly connected to the native arm but are now connected to the chest. The chest muscles then contract in response to the nerve signals. The contractions are sensed by electrodes on the chest, the electrodes send signals to the motors of the prosthetic arm—and the arm moves. With Kuiken’s surgery, a user can control the Luke arm with his or her own muscles, as if the arm were an extension of the person’s flesh. However, the Luke arm also provides feedback to the user without surgery.


Instead, the feedback is given by a tactor. A tactor is a small vibrating motor—about the size of a bite-size candy bar—secured against the user’s skin. A sensor on the Luke hand, connected to a microprocessor, sends a signal to the tactor, and that signal changes with grip strength. When a user grips something lightly, the tactor vibrates slightly. As the user’s grip tightens, the frequency of the vibration increases. This enables Hildreth to pick up and drink out of a flimsy paper cup without crushing it, or firmly hold a heavy cordless drill without dropping it. ”I can do things I haven’t done in 26 years,” he says, looking at his hand. ”I can peel a banana without squishing it.” Hildreth steers the Luke arm with joystick-like controllers embedded in the soles of his shoes. These customizable foot pedals are connected to the arm by long, flat cords. ”When I push down with my left big toe, the arm moves out,” he says, shifting to demonstrate. ”When I move my right big toe, it moves back in.” He shifts again, and the arm dutifully obeys. A wireless version is in the works.


In the United States, there are about 6000 upper extremity amputees in a given year. That number has risen due to the war in Iraq. The Deka arm is the earliest hope for the increasing number of Iraq war veterans who are coming home without arms.


At press time, Ling was sanguine about the Luke arm’s future. ”We’re trying to get a transition partner so it can go into clinical use and a commercial partner to get it out to the patients,” he says. ”This is no longer a science fair project.” The costly research and development, Kamen says, means that any company can now take over the Luke arm and look for ways to manufacture it cost-effectively. Depending on the degree of amputation, today’s state-of-the-art prosthetic arms can cost patients about $100 000 or more. Luke project manager Rick Needham says that the goal is to keep as close to that cost as possible.


But before the arm can be commercialized, it needs to be approved by the FDA, and that can’t happen without clinical trials. And right now it’s not clear who will fund those clinical trials. DARPA’s funding often ends after a project’s funding is picked up by some other organization. Deka doesn’t yet have such a transition partner.


”Clinical trials certainly have a cost,” says DARPA spokesperson Jan Walker. ”If no one funds the costs, then trials obviously can’t happen.” But she says DARPA’s funding procedures are not set in stone. Sometimes DARPA funding ends completely; sometimes the agency continues a low level of funding as the new organization ramps up its own funding. Walker declined to comment on specific plans for the Luke arm.


If DARPA continues funding the project, Kamen’s group would like to start clinical take-home trials sometime this year. Kamen hints that he has been in talks with Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and with other Veterans Affairs hospitals. ”Certainly within the next two years we hope to submit to the FDA for approval to sell the arm,” says Needham.


Hildreth says he can’t wait to get one of the Luke arm prostheses home. ”My wife can’t wait either,” he says. ”She says, ’Oh yeah, I got lots of stuff for you to do around the house.’ ”







Beyond Dean Kamen

POSTED BY: Morgen Peck



I think it’s fair to say that in the last 20 years the field of prosthetics has taken a sexy turn. We’ve come so far from Barbie doll legs and hook arms, that it boggles the mind. People now control 5-fingered robotic hands with electrical impulses from muscles in their chest. And soon their prosthetics will directly interface with nerve endings. The “Luke arm” is a work of art, as is the Otto Bock arm and Proto 2. But it’s worth remembering something that I myself often forget: they aren’t toys. And we can’t measure the success of them by looking at how much fame they’ve bestowed upon their creators.


I most recently remembered this while listening to Kendra Calhoun speak yesterday at Worcester Polytechnical Institute’s annual Neuroprosthetics symposium. At this highly technical conference, it was her role to remind people of the objective—to develop prosthetics that function well enough that amputees will actually wear them, and that are inexpensive enough that they can actually afford them.

Around 30% of people with prosthetic arms stop using them and most say it’s either because they hurt or they just don’t work well enough. Unfortunately, as prosthetics become more functional and incorporate more technology, the cost of them will sky rocket. It’s painfully clear that every patient with upper limb loss will not be able to acquire a Luke arm.

Calhoun called on the community to offer practical solutions in parallel with the grandiose projects.”How do we take pieces and parts of the technology that is being advanced and put it into the mainstream?” she asked.

One solution that has to be looked at is designing prosthetics that are simply more simple. A hand is an obscenely complex structure. But not every task requires such complexity.


With this in mind, I was happy to run across a new design on the cover of PNAS that isn’t anatomically literal. You can see how it works by watching this video:


Engineers at Cornell University (along with the University of Chicago and iRobot) introduced the concept this week. The ball is filled with coffee grinds that mold around the object you want to pick up and suck it in with a vacuum. A lot of technology is left behind here, but that also means it will be less expensive.


While reproducing the elegance of our anatomy is noble, it may not always be necessary or practical. And the more noble task could very well be less sexy. Many would benefit if we channeled a bit of our adulation (and funding) to those projects that are churning out the prosthetics we’ll actually see on the streets.

(Image courtesy of John Amend)




Universal Gripper



Geminoid F: the Female Android

POSTED BY: Erico Guizzo



Photos: Osaka University (left); Osaka University and Kokoro Company (right); composite (middle)




Geminoid F, the female android recently unveiled by Hiroshi Ishiguro, a roboticist at Osaka University and ATR famous for his ultra-realistic humanlike androids, generated a lot of interest. Several people wrote me asking for more details and also more images. So here’s some good news. I got some exclusive photos and video of Geminoid F, courtesy of Osaka University, ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories, and Kokoro Company. Below is a video I put together giving an overview of the project.




Watch in HD here.

So, Is There a New Definition of Human?



And here are some more photos of the android. The first one below is a composite I created using the two photos right beneath it. It shows how the android’s silicone body hides all the mechanical and electronics parts.


Composite based on photos below. Notice that the robot’s body is not in the exact same position in the two images, so the composite is not a perfect match; also, I had to flip the robot skeleton image to get the right angle, creating a mirrored image that obviously doesn’t correspond to reality.



Photos: Osaka University and Kokoro Company; Osaka University


Here’s a Kokoro engineer working on the android’s face. Ishiguro and Kokoro have long been collaborators, creating several humanlike androids that include the Geminoid HI-1 and Repliee Q1 and Q2.


Photo: Osaka University and Kokoro Company


In developing Geminoid F, Ishiguro paid particular attention to the facial expressions. He wanted an android that could exhibit a natural smile — and also a frown.


Photos: Osaka University

The android is a copy of a woman in her twenties. Ishiguro told me that her identity will remain “confidential.”


Here’s Geminoid F meeting Geminoid HI-1.


This one below shows the woman teleoperating the android. A vision system captures her mouth and head movements, reproducing those movements on the android. The woman can also use the mouse to activate certain behaviors.

Photo: Osaka University. So tell us: Was Ishiguro able to leap over the abyss of the

uncanny valley?




Watson AI Crushes Humans in Second Round of Jeopardy

POSTED BY: Erico Guizzo

UPDATE: See who prevailed — man or machine? — in the third and final round!


IBM’s Watson Jeopardy computer and its human opponents, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.




What a difference a day makes in the life of an artificial intelligence.

After an unimpressive debut on Monday, Watson, the IBM Jeopardy-playing computer, crushed its carbon lifeform opponents last night.

The game started with Monday’s score: Brad Rutter tied with Watson for first with $5000, and Ken Jennings last with $2000.

Ken was first to pick a category, but after host Alex Trebek read the clue, Watson buzzed faster. From then on, the computer just kept on going, buzzing and answering correctly seven times in a row, amassing $21,035. Ken and Brad stood there, hopeless. The IBMers in the audience grinned and clapped.

Which brings me to my first question about this whole thing: How does Watson ring the buzzer? Was something implemented to make the buzzing fairer to the human competitors, who are not electrically wired to the game hardware? Update: Here’s how Watson receives the clue and rings in the buzzer: It receives the clue as a text file at the moment that the clue appears on the stage screen, so in principle at the same time the clue “hits Brad Rutter’s and Ken Jennings’ retinas.” To buzz in, Watson receives a signal when a “buzzer enable” light turns on, and then it can activate a robotic finger to press the buzzer. Though some may disagree, IBM claims this is a fair design to compete with human contestants.

Anyway, after the seventh correct answer, the category was “The Art of the Steal” and an interesting clue came up. Watch what happened:








Clearly, Watson didn’t quite understand the clue, which called for an art
period, not an artist, as answer. Curiously, the computer had the correct answer listed among its choices, but with a low probability. The humans had no problem understanding the question — but they got the art period wrong.

Watson’s confusion didn’t last, though. Soon, the machine was again dominating the game, this time getting six straight correct answers and expanding its lead. Ken and Brad would occasionally get an answer right, but it was a Watson show.

The highlight of the night came at the end, during the Final Jeopardy round, when contestants can wager a certain amount (up to their total score) and then they see the final clue. The category was “U.S. cities,” and Watson had $36,681, Rutter $5400, and Jennings $2400. Watch:








Toronto????? Ooohhh. You can hear the IBMers gasping, terrified that this humiliating mistake is going to cost Watson everything. But nope. The smarty-pants (or smarty-racks) machine didn’t go all in, its wagering-strategy algorithm deciding to bet just $947. (Here’s how IBM explains the flub.)

So the night ended with Jennings with $4800, Brad with $10,400, and Watson with $35,734. The LCD-faced machine, with its HAL 9000 voice, vastly outperformed the best brains at this game. A massacre.

Which brings me to my second question: What is Watson good for other than playing Jeopardy? Will it help advance AI for real or is this just an entertaining challenge, much like the Deep Blue vs. Kasparov matches?

IBM, wise about this PR opportunity, made sure to include a video segment in which its execs and scientists brag about Watson’s potential “to transform many industries.” Their comments, however, were vague — things like “Life is about questions and answers,” or “This changes the paradigm in which we work with computers” — and the most concrete example they gave was using Watson to help clinicians diagnose a hard case involving lots of data.

The whole thing looks like a giant commercial for IBM, but hey, I’m not complaining; I was very entertained and feel like I want to learn more about how Watson works. And I’m looking forward to tonight’s round. Do Watson’s mistakes mean there’s hope for Ken and Brad? What do you think will happen tonight?




Watson on Jeopardy! Day Two: The Confusion over an Airport Clue


Posted by
Steve Hamm


Well, Watson beat the human champions in the first game of the Jeopardy! face off between man and machine, with a score of $35,734 to $10,400 for Brad Rutter and $4,800 for Ken Jennings. But Watson’s developers were puzzled by his flub in the Final Jeopardy! segment. The category was US Cities, and the answer was: “Its largest airport was named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle.” The two human contestants wrote “What is Chicago?” for its O’Hare and Midway, but Watson’s response was a lame “What is Toronto???”

How could the machine have been so wrong? David Ferrucci, the manager of the Watson project at IBM Research, explained during a viewing of the show on Monday morning that several things probably confused Watson. First, the category names on Jeopardy! are tricky. The answers often do not exactly fit the category. Watson, in his training phase, learned that categories only weakly suggest the kind of answer that is expected, and, therefore, the machine downgrades their significance. The way the language was parsed provided an advantage for the humans and a disadvantage for Watson, as well. “What US city” wasn’t in the question. If it had been, Watson would have given US cities much more weight as it searched for the answer. Adding to the confusion for Watson, there are cities named Toronto in the United States and the Toronto in Canada has an American League baseball team. It probably picked up those facts from the written material it has digested. Also, the machine didn’t find much evidence to connect either city’s airport to World War II. (Chicago was a very close second on Watson’s list of possible answers.) So this is just one of those situations that’s a snap for a reasonably knowledgeable human but a true brain teaser for the machine.

The mistake actually encouraged Ferrucci. “It’s goodness,” he said. Watson knew it did not know that right answer with any confidence. Its confidence level was about 30%. So it was right about that. Moreover, Watson has learned how the categories work in Jeopardy! It understands some of the subtleties of the game, and it doesn’t make simplistic assumptions. Think about how Watson could be used in medicine, as a diagnostic aid. A patient may describe to a doctor a certain symptom or a high level of pain, which, on the surface, may seem to be an important clue to the cause of the ailment. But Watson may know from looking at a lot of data that that symptom or pain isn’t the key piece of evidence, and could alert the doctor to be aware of other factors.

(By the way, there are many fields where Watson could help out. IBM general counsel Robert Weber describes how Watson might be used in the legal profession in a guest blog posting on The National Law Journal Web site. Anne K. Altman, general manager, Global Public Sector, talks about how Watson could be helpful to government in a posting on Government Technology magazine’s blog.)

Another encouraging sign: Watson bet intelligently, just $947, so it still won the game by a wide margin. “That’s smart,” Ferrucci said. “You’re in the middle of the contest. Hold onto your money. Why take a risk?”

Watson may not have much of a sense of humor, but Ferrucci sure does. He wore a Toronto Blue Jays jacket to the Jeopardy! viewing.