April 7, 2014

In hospitals and nursing homes in Japan, disabled people are learning to walk again by wearing a robot suit. The suit ironically named HAL, for the Hybrid Assistive Limb, is strapped to one or both legs to help the patient regain mobility.

I say ironically because HAL is the Artificial Intelligence villain of science fiction. But the exoskeleton HAL is in fact far friendlier. It has been designed to support and expand the physical capabilities of its users, particularly people with physical disabilities.

HAL is produced by Cyberdine, Inc a Japanese company established in 2004 to further develop and market the work of Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai at the University of Tsukuba.

Last week Cyberdine, listed its shares on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s ‘Mothers market’ where its share price more than doubled on its first day of trading, closing at 9,600 yen ($92.40), far above the initial public offering price of 3,700 yen ($35.60).

In December 2012 Shinsei Bank, Limited made its first investment into Cyberdine through its Fukushima Growth Industry Development Fund, outlining its faith in Cyberdine as potentially contributing significantly to the area ‘as part of efforts to revitalize Fukushima prefecture after the Great East Japan Earthquake’.

Exoskeletons look likely to be a considerable market, with reports ranging as wide as $1.8 billion to $45 billion per annum by 2020.

In his book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, Dr John Coats (a neuroscientist and former Wall Street Trader) writes about how the brain and body coordinate to produce our thoughts and behavior – he describes, and remember he is a neuroscientist, the central operation of our brain:

“You may be tempted to answer, given our heritage, that the Central most defining feature of our brain is its capacity for pure thought. But neuroscientists have discovered that conscious rational thought is a bit player in the drama that is our mental life. Many of these scientists now believe that we are getting closer to the truth if we say that the basic operation of the brain is the organization of movement.”

Think about that: the brain’s main role is not to engage in pure thought but to plan and execute physical movement. What is the point, say neuroscientists, if our sensations, our memories, our cognitive abilities, do not lead at some point to action?

During the 20th century, investments in human-mobility technology primarily focused on wheeled devices. According to the World Health Organization, about 10% of the global population, i.e. about 650 million people, have disabilities. Studies indicate that, of these, some 10% (65 million people) require a wheelchair.

It seems likely that in the 21st century more investments will be made to drive innovation in exoskeletons. The fact that large automobile companies, such as Honda and Toyota have exoskeletal research programs is an indication of this technological shift. Perhaps in the next decade exoskeletons will be as pervasive in society as wheelchairs (electrical and manual) are today. We will be giving movement back in a totally different way to millions of people.

Hugh Herr has a personal reason for building the next generation of bionic limbs, robotic prosthetics or exoskeletons. Hugh lost both legs in a climbing accident 30 years ago; now, he is the head of the MIT Media Lab’s Biomechatronics group and founder of Biom, a personal bionics company. In the video below, at TED 2014, Hugh shows his incredible technology in a talk that’s both technical and deeply personal — with the help of ballroom dancer Adrianne Haslet-Davis, who lost her left leg in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing,

Researchers are doing remarkable things with cybernetics and bringing movement back to many…


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