“Engineering is For Helping People”: Xconomist of the Week Yoky Matsuoka

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making it light. Batteries. Making it extremely hard to break. Something that can float in the ocean and get beaten up and still be okay. Connectors. Wires. Wow, all of those problems actually get in our way. And it’s kind of interesting that the same kinds of problems are getting in the way of brain science as well. Why aren’t we getting tons of data that computer scientists can play with in terms of brain signals? Because there is nothing small enough to go in the brain that you can wear inside your skull and walk around collecting data. If we had something like that, we would make amazing advances.

So the anatomically correct hands have a dual purpose. It’s not really aiming to make the next set of hands that’s going to hit the market. Really it’s about pushing the envelope of knowledge. We don’t know what 10 things are in our hands that should be in the current robotic hand to make it move just the way we do. Is it the shape of the bone? Is it the way tendons are routed? Is it the way the skin lies? What is it?

When you don’t know, you can either mimic one at a time, or you can mimic all of them and then remove them one at a time, and that’s kind of been the procedure with the anatomically correct hand. So we even try to copy the form of the bone, and we say “Is this bump important? Is this groove important? Wow, there’s this asymmetry and we wanted to get rid of it but it turns out to be extremely important.” That’s the kind of procedures we have gone through on the mechanical side. It’s extremely fascinating.

X: A lot of the prosthetic limbs that amputees wear today are still fairly primitive. I’m curious what you think will be the path between the prosthetic limbs of today and something that is more responsive and agile. Which companies are experimenting in this area? How do you get this stuff to market?

YM: Prosthetics, while it’s so hot in one way, is also so cold because it’s hard to get funding. It’s a relatively small market, unless we start chopping off all of your arms and making you into subjects, which apparently I am not allowed to do yet. [Laughter.] So it’s actually pretty hard to do, to sort of move the field.

One of the companies that we worked with that is doing amazing mechanically is a company called Touch Bionics. They actually put in five motors for each finger. The hand is pretty light, it’s pretty cheap. Insurance will reimburse $20K for the hardware and maybe another $20K for connecting it, so 100 percent getting covered by insurance in some cases. So it’s getting there. It’s not so bad. And people are walking around with this. Thousands of people now have this device.

So why isn’t this common knowledge? Why isn’t everybody wearing it? One, it has five motors, but they all move together because we can’t get the control signals for them separately. How are we going to know from one or two signals that you want to do this, or you want to do that [twisting her arm]? Or make different grasping shapes? That’s turned out to be really hard. So from about two signals they get open signal and close signal. So is the limitation mechanical? Not so much.

This is why I think that with more resources, Silicon Valley and venture capital could really jump in and say, “You know what, this might not be the money making machine of the century, but boy it’s for a good cause, and let’s take some of the software tools we’ve got and bring them into the field.” I bet we could go a long way.

X: I bet we could too. Moving to the opposite end of the funding spectrum, I wanted to ask you about YokyWorks. You set that up a few years ago. It’s a non profit and you focus on commercializing technologies that could help people with Parkinson’s and other disabilities to lead more fulfilling lives. There’s a big educational component to it—getting young entrepreneurs interested in robotics. So I’m curious, what are the career paths open these days to young people who have an interest in robotics and might be trying to decide, “Should I go to a startup, should I go to a university, should I start my own company, should I go to Google and do it on my 20 percent time”?

YM: To say a little more about YokyWorks and its motivation: My work has always focused very heavily on pushing the scientific envelope. Even though I was in the field of robotics, it was because I wanted to help people. So that urge led me to create YokyWorks, which was really about taking requests from individuals. For example, someone might have sent me an e-mail saying, “My son has cerebral palsy, and his fingers are not moving in a way that he can type on a computer, so he is getting Ds in class even though he is really smart. Is there anything you can do about that?” Those are the kinds of requests that I was getting by just being on the Web and being a faculty professor. I thought, you know what, yeah, if I had 20 percent time or worked at Google or could take one day a week, I could probably do this on my own. So that’s why I … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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