Kunihiko Miyahara loved to surf. His wife, Kaori, points out photos of her husband catching waves as her fingers wander through an album filled with images of the couples’ history. The Miyaharas met as actors. They played a couple on stage, and although Kunihiko admits that he loved Kaori first, they’ve been happily married for 20 years. Together, they’ve been through thick and thin, good times and bad. Arguably the worst was when Kunihiko was hit by a motorcycle while riding his bicycle in Tokyo, Japan. In an instant, Kunihiko’s surfing dreams were crushed along with his spine.
“The doctor told me I would never walk again,” said Kunihiko. New technological advances in robotics, however, are giving people the ability to overcome some of their physical limitations. “When I was nine years old, I read the book I, Robot,” said Dr. Yoshiyuki Sankai, a professor, roboticist and founder of robot maker CYBERDYNE. Isaac Asimov’s work of science fiction, which outlined his Three Laws of Robotics, inspired Sankai in his childhood, and the first – to protect humans – informed his work in developing the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) exoskeleton.
As a cyborg-type robot – a fusion of human, robot and information systems — the robot suit HAL, which looks a little like legs of a Stormtrooper, detects signals from the wearer’s nervous system. The wearer of the suit is tasked with re-training his brain to communicate with his body. Sankai states that HAL can improve damaged physical functionality.
HAL follows a series of steps: The brain transmits nerve signals to the muscles it wants to move; the skin propagates those impulses as bioelectric signals, which are picked up by HAL, and HAL computes the required movement and level of power exertion accordingly. With the movement occurring in real time, the brain can receive sensory nerve signals from the muscles and joints, and this allows the wearer to improve their impaired functionality.
“After therapy with the robot suit, I can stand. I can walk. I can use my arms,” Kunihiko said. “My body is changing.” Kaori said a year ago her husband couldn’t do anything. Today he’s a different man. Dr. Sankai said this is part of what makes the robot suit so special. “By using HAL, people’s mindset and emotions change,” he said. “It motivates people to have hope.” HAL is designed to augment human capability, said Paul Tapp, director of technology for Intel. And to do so requires robust processing capabilities.
“Within the HAL robot exoskeleton, there’s an embedded Intel Atom processor,” he said. “That’s really the central processing unit for all of the different sensors and microcontrollers that are taking nerve signals from the human body and interpreting them and feeding back that data.” The suit’s movement sensors track the patient’s mobility in three dimensions, which helps transmit information about how the patient’s body can and cannot move. Tapp said the data is crunched through a series of complex algorithms that helps physicians determine exactly what kind of enhanced therapy is required.
Tapp said the robot technology is the futurist fodder used in old movies. “If you look at the future of an augmented human, you only need to turn to science fiction in the past 30 years,” he said. “The sort of capabilities that inspire kids, teenagers, even adults today, this is really the beginning of it.” For Kunihiko Miyahara, HAL has helped him believe again in his body. “One day,” he said, “I want to go to the ocean and ride a wave again.”