Brain Controlled Prosthetics


As you do, conversation at the dinner table last night went to prosthetics. It started with her school planning assignments on innovation and her plan to get her class thinking about how people could cope without the use of their hands.

She mentioned the story of Mariatu Kamara who had both her hands hacked off in Sierra Leone, which is the subject of her book Bite of the Mango. She decided that she would get her kids to spend a day not being able to use their hands and then get them to think about how they could cope with this. The next step would be how to use innovation to come up with a solution to this problem.

I told her about the Kiwi company Rex Bionics who are helping people who are wheelchair bound and thought they would never walk again, to get on their feet with an exoskeleton. This is a topic I have covered on a number of occasions including my recent blog on Singularity.

Anyway, this is an area that is being well researched and just to prove that learning to control a prosthesis via the brain, check out this video where a University of Pittsburgh team trained a monkey to feed itself using a prosthetic arm controlled via a brain implant.

Now I do have to warn you not to try this at home folks. Implants produce scarring and scarring inhibits conductivity. Now of course the problem is how to produce this technology at a price that is affordable. Probably decades away, but pretty exciting, don’t you think?

Is Kiwi Ingenuity a Thing of the Past


OK, apologies for the blogfade. My father in law has gone to rest 3 months after being told he had 3 days to 2 weeks left after a second long battle with cancer. I’ve had lots of things I wanted to blog about, but haven’t had the time or state of mind. But I’m back with bells on.

Lots of things coming up, so please keep an eye out. What’s coming up?

I want to talk some more about health technology and ask why we aren’t using it in our hospitals to the degree that we should even though it can save time, money and most of all, lives.

I also want to explore in depth the Number 8 Fencing Wire way of life in New Zealand and whether it still exists. I want to explore why, when we have so many brilliant minds in New Zealand, it doesn’t result in increased GDP and why the little guy stays little.

I discussed this with a colleague a few days ago and he postulated that we are still celebrating Ernest Rutherford, the Hamilton Jet, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, AJ Hackett and Number 8 fencing wire and some guy who rode an Indian motorcycle faster than it was designed to go and that they are all in the past. He seemed to think we weren’t so smart any more.

So I asked him, what about the Rex, 3D Printing, the Martin Jet Pack or Mark Rocket’s Rocket? He hadn’t heard of any of those and I suspect very few Kiwi’s have.

I have long bemoaned that New Zealand doesn’t take advantage of a fairly unique mindset that makes up many Kiwis. There are so many opportunities, so many capable people, but we seem to be unable to capitalise on them. Yes there are grants, there are incubators, there are clusters, but most good ideas either go by the wayside or fly overseas where investors recognise an opportunity when they see one.

So I’m going to do some digging and some talking and maybe even have the opportunity to help a few people on the way. New Zealand has the potential to be an innovation and center of excellence capital of the world. Whether it is a gadget that stops the paint tin falling off a ladder or nanotechnology, we are great problem solvers.

More people, businesses and government need to recognize and harness our ability and we need to do it differently if we want to get a different result. Our smarts are everywhere but they are disorganized and rudderless. I say we wake up and smell the coffee.

Let’s go Kiwis! Come along for the ride. Don’t just listen, come and join the conversation. Have you got some good ideas? What’s holding you back?

And When I Die


No I’m not talking about my blog, but it is relevant to the podfade. There is so much I want to write about. How thrilled I was about The Hyperfactory achieving their harvest plan and that Derek and Geoffrey are planning on coming back to New Zealand to share their knowledge and help others follow in their successful path. As you know location based services and mobile marketing are amongst my passions.

I would also have liked to talk about the Rex which set foot in New Zealand, just as I was bemoaning the difficulty of Kiwi innovators to capitalise on their ability; again an area that has been of great interest to me. Then of course there is the tentative success of the oil cap on the BP oil well. I have pondered much on Oceanic Dead Zones, whilst the BP accident helps extend them.

Two months ago I was faced with a family crisis. My father in law was told that he had somewhere between 3 days and 2 weeks to live. Life as I know it, pretty much stopped. Our close family was in shock, even though we knew it would come eventually. Before you offer condolences, he is still alive:)

Having developed a taste for tobacco while serving in the air force, 20 years ago he had a laryngectomy as a result of throat cancer. He didn’t take it lying down. He learned to talk again and picked his life up. He became involved with the Lost Chord Club and eventually became President, counselling others through their throat cancer journey. He also visited schools and let children look into his stoma, seeing that he had to breath through a hole in his neck, caused through smoking.

So for most of the last 20 years he was in remission, then the cancer returned and as often is the case 2nd time around, it was not going to be possible to treat it.

So my life and that of my family has changed dramatically for a while and  many of things I have been wanting to do, I haven’t had time for. We spend as much time as we can with him, because once it is over it is totally over.

It strikes me that whilst we all know that from the moment we are born, we can be certain of one thing (I have blogged about people (such as some from Singularity University) are doing everything they can to avoid it) it appears that death is a given for each of us.

So we have been assisting with respite care, trying to help him maintain his dignity as he becomes helpless, and his confusion as to both why he is still alive and what will become of him when he dies. Will there be a place for him in heaven? Is there a heaven? These things worry him. He has never been a religious person, although he was a church choir boy many years back. He worries about his wife and what will become of her after he passes on.

We all worry about each other, how each is going to cope with the end. I wonder how the women of the family cope now, they look after him around 18 hours a day, partly because they want to and partly because there are not many people who understand how to look after someone with a hole in their neck, who can’t talk. If he had a shower and water got into his stoma, he would drown. If his neck valve leaks (and this happens from time to time) when he eats a few spoonfuls of his porridge, the food can leak into his lungs.

Anyway, things aren’t normal right now and no one can tell him what is next tomorrow, let alone for eternity. Two months ago he was told maximum 2 weeks. Two weeks ago we were told “a few days”.  It took us a while to understand what he meant every time he woke up and asked “What’s going on?” We thought he meant Who’s here? or Is someone going to take me to the toilet? But eventually we figured out that he is asking, “Why am I still alive?”

So it seemed appropriate as I wait for my finger nails to toughen up again (for guitar) after washing the bathroom and shower, so I can do my latest Berklee Music assignment and then head back to the rest home after a work out at the gym (down to one a week because I go to the rest home straight from work) that today’s blog be about something more basic than singularity and the latest problems with iPhone 4. Once you break it down, we are just an essence in a body that peaks somewhere between late teens and mid twenties and then starts to die.

Sometimes all that matters is the people that are close to you and can give you comfort, and you them. When you break it down, we are beings in flesh and blood in a temporary home.

Singularity and ESI’s


I always thought of singularity as being when supercomputers end up being able to match human intelligence. One of the early science fiction films that influenced me in my youth was 2001 A Space Odyssey. I loved all of Arthur C Clarke’s books,but HAL 9000 was my first introduction to the concept of a computer that thinks, reasons and has emotions. I’ve often thought  that if a computer reached that level, it would consider humans to be animals to be eradicated as quickly as possible. The way we humans behave is often totally irrational and inappropriate, we are actively destroying our planet and instead of working together to fix it.

So I was somewhat surprised to read of research by organisations such as DARPA working on the concept of singularity as being a combination of genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. I don’t know why I was surprised. First, the concept of Ubermensch probably goes way back before Nietzsche, perhaps even to da Vinci. Some people consider Nietzsche to be the inspiration for Hitler’s concept of the Aryan master-race.

Over the years we have seen many films such as The Terminator, TV shows like The Six Million Dollar Man and it is only logical that for many reasons, the military, NASA and others need to be able to modify humans to be more powerful. The military can use people who have super vision, night vision, extreme strength and resilience and of course if we are going to send people into space for long periods of time, wouldn’t it be easier if they were able to withstand low or no gravity for long periods of time, perhaps very high gravity, be able to thrive on different diets, different atmosphere etc. Just adding a little justification here.

One of the first areas that the concept of enhanced human beings is a result of the medical world finding ways to aide humans who have had injuries or other conditions, for example having lost an arm or a hand. It is now only mildly surprising to see people with a stump, manipulating a prosthetic hand and managing complex tasks.

The BeBionic Hand in the video above is due for release in June of this year and will make a huge difference to many people. Of course the military and those who can afford it, can add this type of enhancement technology to the able bodied. Imagine having an exoskeleton that would allow you to lift a 200 pound weight 500 times in a row. With millions of dollars of funding from DARPA, Sarcos, a recently purchased subsidiary of Raytheon has built the XOS Exoskeleton which can do that, it’s real technology, not something out of a Marvel comic or a SciFi movie. It’s very real.

They call this a Combat Robot, but imagine the other uses. For example imagine the uses of a suit like this for civil defence emergencies, after an earthquake, or rescuing people from a major motor accident. I’ve said it many times before: Science Fiction is becoming fact at a pace that is mind boggling.

I’ll finish for now with eyesight. Imagine being able to see and focus way beyond what humans can normally do. Did you know that Tiger Woods used to have -11 eyesight, which is about as short sighted as you can get. According to TLC Eye Centres, he wouldn’t have been able to see the ball without glasses until he had Lasik treatment. They say that he now has eyesight significantly better than the average person and that this contributed to his golfing success. According to a story on the Slate website, many athletes are being targeted by marketing offering them an advantage by enhancing their eyesight when there is nothing wrong with it. Last year I wrote about Tanya Vlach who was trying to get someone to provide her with a bionic eye. Checking out her blog, she hasn’t achieved her goal yet, but I suspect she will.

If you’d like to know more about enhanced humans and DARPA, I’ll leave the last word to Wired Magazine who have an excellent article (already 3 years old) about some of the amazing developments that have probably already been dramatically improved on and we haven’t even started on nanotechnology.

What the HAL?


I love the way Japan and Korea are developing robotics. I used to say that the Japanese were great engineers but not that great at innovating, I think that perhaps those thoughts should be banished to the dim past.

I’ve written a few blogs on robotics, such as about the plans in Korea to have a domestic robot in every household between 2015 and 2020, ironically I mentioned HAL9000 from 2001 A Space Oddysey in that blog.

The latest innovation greeting the media this week has been the new Japanese Robot suit from Cyberdine, also called HAL, but this one is a robotic prosthesis. HAL stands for Hybrid Assistive Limb and uses the faint nerve impulses when your brain tries to control weak or damaged limbs.

This technology has been under development for several years, but it looks like it is ready or the market, as demonstrated in this video taken recently in a Japanese hospital.

What seems remarkable to me is that this robot will soon be available for purchase in Japan for a little over US$4,000! This means that these devices will be accessible for less than the cost of an average surgery and could perhaps be of major assistance to people on waiting lists for hip replacement or other limb operations.

One of the great features is that the exosceleton, if I can call it that, supports its own weight, so isn’t an extra burden on the person wearing it. This offers people with disabilities an amazing opportunty to live and do ordinary, but also extraodinary things. For example during testing 2 years ago, Seiji Uchida, a quadraplegic was able was able to climb a mountain on the back of a climber using a HAL suit.

Of course this brings in the Six Million Dollar Man question. If this is what disabled people can do, what could able bodied people achieve with one of these?

Of course the military have been working on projects like these for a long time. DARPA have for several years been working on exoskeletons that can help people carry more weight, run faster and of course have much more strength when needed.

Other scenarios where these could be used would be in civil emergencies such as earthquake rescue, where immediate strength could speed the release of people trapped under rubble.

The immediate opportunity is to alleviate suffering of people with injuries or issues such as arthritis, but there are likely to be lots of people queuing up for the opportunity to become super people, or perhaps super heroes, or of course super criminals, but I don’t want to go there.

Day to day operations of emergency services could also benefit from this technology. In the hands of fire services, police, paramedics and others, this technology could be brilliant.