Star Wars Inspires UW Scientist, Yoky Matsuoka, to Think Big About Making Artificial Hands

One of the scenes from The Empire Strikes Back gives you an idea of what Yoky Matsuoka is pursuing. It’s the part where Luke Skywalker tests out a prosthetic hand that he can control with all the dexterity of a natural one, well enough to wield one mean light saber.

Matsuoka, a MacArthur “genius” award winner (and an Xconomist), and one of the up-and-comers on the faculty at the University of Washington, described her work in what she calls “neurobotics” this morning at the Technology Alliance’s Science & Technology Discovery Series in Seattle.

The research is a fusion of computer science that develops models of brain signals that control fine movements with mechanical engineering that makes more life-like bones and tendons in the hand. Current incarnations of prosthetic hands are heavy, costly, force patients to struggle through hours of work to perform coordinated movements, and don’t do much more than grasp objects, she says. She’s shooting for the kind of dexterity that could help a patient peel a banana with a prosthetic hand.

“I want to understand the brain signals that allow this, and the mechanical systems that allow you to simulate it,” Matsuoka said in her talk, after showing a clip from Star Wars as one of her slides.

Matsuoka, 37, came to the UW two years ago from a faculty position at Carnegie Mellon University because she wanted to be closer to her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was close to home as an undergrad at the University of California, Berkeley, before she went to graduate school at MIT in the artificial intelligence lab of Rodney Brooks and Emilio Bizzi. She went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship in mechanical engineering at Harvard University.

The UW “lucked out” in recruiting her, says Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair of Computer Science at UW, who’s also an Xconomist. Not only did Seattle offer closer proximity to her family, it also happens to be home to Microsoft Research, a place where her husband, a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist, could also find satisfying work, Lazowska says. There’s also the advantage of having computer science labs just a few minutes’ walk from world-class medical researchers. “Seattle is getting to that point, like the Bay Area, where there are enough opportunities out there to satisfy the two-body problem, of placing two scientists,” Lazowska says.

What’s special about Matsuoka’s work is that “she’s made herself multi-disciplinary,” Lazowska says. “She’s fluent in computer science, she’s fluent in mechanical engineering, she’s fluent in bioengineering. She’s learning neuroscience. If she was just a computer scientist, she’d just do simulations of this. If she was just a mechanical engineer, she’d just build hands. It’s her ability to tie it together.”

Nothing from Matsuoka’s lab has been turned into a product, and it’s the sort of work that’s five to 10 years away from being widely applied, she says. The U.S. military has shown some renewed interest, through DARPA funding, for prosthetics research since so many war veterans are coming home with missing limbs. Companies like Intel and Microsoft are becoming increasingly interested in brain research, and she says she’s eager to form industry partnerships to further develop the work. So if Matsuoka gets her way, she’ll help realize the vision George Lucas helped put into the public imagination back in 1980.

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