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Month April 2014

Bionic Athletes With Exoskeletons, Robotic Limbs, and Brain-Control Devices to Compete in 2016 Cybathlon

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Bionic Athletes With Exoskeletons, Robotic Limbs, and Brain-Control Devices to Compete in 2016 Cybathlon

cybathlon-robotic-prosthetics-race (1)

While traditional sports only grudgingly accept technological augmentation, the 2016 Cybathlon, a kind of hybrid between the XPRIZE and Olympics, embraces it with both robotic arms. Disabled competitors (or pilots) will compete using assistance devices like powered exoskeletons, robotic prostheses, and brain-control interfaces.

We’ve chronicled the continuous evolution of such technologies over the years, but they’re still largely out of reach for most folks.

The University of Switzerland’s Robert Riener and the Swiss National Competence Center of Research in Robotics are organizing the event in Zurich to push assistive technologies closer to mainstream use.

Each winning team will receive two awards: one goes to the pilot, the other to the maker of their device. And while competitors will be vetted to  insure they don’t have a physical advantage, technological advantages are welcome.

“There will be as few technical constraints as possible, in order to encourage the device providers to develop novel and powerful solutions.”

The tech on display will include arm and leg prostheses, brain-control interfaces, functional electrical stimulation, powered exoskeletons, and powered wheelchairs. Pilots may be paraplegic, quadriplegic, even locked-in. The brain-control interface competition, for example, features a video game—controlled entirely by thought.

How’s that possible?

In a famous example, a quadriplegic patient, Cathy Hutchinson, used a BrainGate2 neural implant to control a robotic arm with her mind. Other methods using (electroencephalogram) EEG caps sense electrical patterns in the brain to less-invasively achieve similar results (like in this recent thought-controlled music player).

cybathlon-robotic-arm-comp

At Cybathlon, parathletes will use exoskeletons, like those by Ekso Bionics, to navigate obstacle courses. Others will use functional electrical stimulation of nerves in paralyzed limbs to compete in a bike race. Arm amputees will use robotic prosthetics to navigate a wire course as quickly and nimbly as possible without touching the wire.

Robotic prosthetics (arm and leg), like those from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Case Western Reserve University, use computers to recognize electrical patterns in muscles and nerves and allow patients to control bionic limbs with thoughts alone. Some are even beginning to send rudimentary sensory touch information back to the brain.

cybathlon-powered-exoskeleton-obstacle course

The Cybathlon wouldn’t be possible without these technologies, but perhaps it wouldn’t be quite as urgent if they weren’t still confined to labs and clinical trials. The hope is the Cybathlon can add another incentive to speed things along.

Over the years we’ve learned that incentivized competition can accelerate progress. The Ansari XPRIZE, for example, resulted in the first private suborbital space flight, proving space was no longer the sole domain of governments.

Scaled Composites won the $10 million competition with SpaceShipOne. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic subsequently purchased the spaceplane, refined it into SpaceShipTwo, and aims to begin launching space tourists this year.

Meanwhile, another private space firm, SpaceX, is slashing launch costs, resupplying the International Space Station, and working on reusable rockets. A few San Francisco scrappy space startups are even building tiny satellites in garages.

The 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge for self-driving cars similarly sparked a movement. No vehicle finished the course that year, but subsequent competitions realized better results.

Google announced its self-driving car program in 2010, and its fleet of robot cars surpassed 300,000 miles in 2012. Today, cars are increasingly autonomous and more, with greater capability, are in the pipeline from a slew of major carmakers.

The Cybathlon’s prosthetic limbs, brain-control interfaces, and cutting-edge exoskeletons have the potential to radically empower folks with disabilities—maybe a little healthy competition will bring such assistive tech closer faster.

Image Credit: Cybathlon/YouTube

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The FBI’s Massive Facial Recognition Database Raises Concern

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The FBI’s Massive Facial Recognition Database Raises Concern

SH-79_1-BIGFacial recognition technology isn’t yet sophisticated enough to identify people accurately — something which most technology watchers cite as a reason not to be overly concerned, yet, about its privacy implications.

But the Federal Bureau of Investigation plans to start using the software anyway, according to papers obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a FOIA lawsuit. And when used by law enforcement agencies, imprecise facial recognition algorithms hold at least as much potential for abuse as a terrifyingly precise one, say civil liberties advocates.

The FBI has been building what it calls a Next-Generation Identification system to hold its identification data and, responding to political pressure in the wake of 9/11, to make it sharable between agencies. Civil liberties groups were tense about how more powerful suspect search-engines might affect average citizens, and that’s where the lawsuit came in.

mug_shot-Michael_MagnafichiThe papers the FBI turned over just last week reveal that it has been making impressive progress toward a facial recognition database with a wide-range of sources. But despite clear evidence that the software generates a lot of false positive and false negative results, the bureau’s progress toward guidelines on how the technology will be used is nowhere near as robust.

The database “may include as many as 52 million face images by 2015,” EFF said in an analysis of the government documents. It already contains more than 16 million images. More than 4 million come from non-criminal contexts, such as driver’s license photos.

But is the software, developed by MorphoTrust, accurate? The FBI’s criteria for accuracy specify that the object of the search will be returned in the top 50 candidates 85 percent of the time. That’s not bad, technically speaking, but for every false negative the algorithm spits out, there’s someone who could end up in an FBI interrogation room.

“We know from researchers that the risk of false positives increases as the size of the dataset increases—and, at 52 million images, the FBI’s face recognition is a very large dataset. This means that many people will be presented as suspects for crimes they didn’t commit. This is not how our system of justice was designed and should not be a system that Americans tacitly consent to move towards,” Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at EFF, wrote.

Civil liberties groups are displeased that the new database, unlike its predecessors, will draw in photos from civil sources, such as drivers’ licenses. Still, there’s no law prohibiting such merging of datasets, Chris Conley of the ACLU said. It just wasn’t practical before the digital age.

facial_recognitin_morphotrustBut the FBI has set loose rules about getting photos from sources beyond mug shots and government photo IDs. For instance, the documents say the bureau will get more than 200,000 images from “new repositories” — there’s no clarification of what those repositories may be. A poorly understood information-sharing program between the FBI and local law enforcement bodies would pour another 700,000 images into the database. Photos from social media are off-limits, though there are no procedures identified for enforcing the ban.

While few of us would enjoy being brought in for interrogation, law enforcement would be lax not to take use of powerful technologies like facial recognition at all. A few years from now, surveillance photos like those of the Boston Marathon bombers could lead directly to violent criminals.

So what’s the right way to use the technology?

“As a starting point with any technology, the goals should be in place and the system should be designed around those. We get concerned when the process is ‘let’s collect lots of data and figure out how to use it,’ without those specific guidelines in place,” Conley said.

Curiously, Conley’s advice sounded a lot like common tech industry ground rules for web development projects.

Photos: Mikael Altemark/Flickr, State of Illinois, MorphoTrust

Will the Military Get a Flying Car Before the Rest of Us?

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Will the Military Get a Flying Car Before the Rest of Us?

advanced-tactics-black-knight-transformer-truck 4

If you build things, you may well have a truck—but does it fly? The Advanced Tactics Black Knight Transformer does, and it took to the air for the first time recently.

The Transformer is basically a scaled up multicopter (perhaps you’ve seen RC quadrotors like the AR Parrot) with a wheeled cargo compartment below.

Advanced Tactics, founded in 2007, designs unique vehicles mostly for military use. The firm began work on the Black Knight Transformer in 2010 and, through a series of prototypes, arrived at the full-size, gas-powered Transformer model last year.

The vehicle, it’s hoped, will one day swoop in and out of combat situations, autonomously carting in supplies and pulling out wounded troops without risking additional lives. This might include flying to a safe landing spot and driving into more dangerous areas. Or when driving isn’t possible—picking up and flying to better ground.

advanced-tactics-black-knight-transformer-truck 5

The firm road tested the prototype in December in Southern California. The vehicle, bigger than a Ford F-350 truck and with more interior cargo space, tops out at 70 miles an hour on the road. Its large truck tires and shocks can handle off-road situations.

But sometimes wheeled transportation alone doesn’t cut it.

The six rotors lining Transformer’s sides are powered by combustion engines to lift it off the ground. For the first flight trials in March, the vehicle autonomously hovered ten feet above the ground and was tethered for emergency shutdown in case anything went wrong. But Advanced Tactics says it can fly to altitudes of thousands of feet.

There’s no video of the test, but to get an idea of what it might have looked like, check out this video of one of the firm’s smaller prototypes.

We might note this is a flying truck (or roadable aircraft) and leave it at that. But the Transformer wouldn’t be possible without a few exponential technologies we’ve seen implemented at smaller scales largely for and by enthusiasts.

The aircraft uses variable thrust, more like a model quadcopter than a helicopter. To rise or descend, the vehicle supplies constant power to all rotors equally. To turn right, the vehicle supplies more power to the left rotors than the right, and vice versa to go left.

Due to this simple configuration, the Transformer has no need for control surfaces (like, flaps on an airplane wing) or directional rotors (like on a helicopter). This wouldn’t be possible without smart software and sensors.

advanced-tactics-black-knight-transformer-truck

Also, the entire vehicle can fly autonomously. A network of algorithms, sensors, and flight hardware form an AI pilot of sorts. Similar technology autonomously stabilizes amateur drones, leaving the simplest controls to the person flying them.

Finally, the Transformer is modular. Modularity allows for easy repair and multi-functionality without replacing the entire machine. Modularity is catching on in other areas too–Google’s Project Ara, for example, aims to make modular smartphones.

Malfunctioning rotors can be swapped out by a team of two in the field. And the heavy automobile section can removed to increase payload capacity—it can even be replaced with a boat or amphibious hull for wetter terrain.

advanced-tactics-black-knight-transformer-truck 2

Whether or not modularity makes sense in smartphones, we can see how it might be useful in military vehicles where one vehicle replacing three can reduce fleet size. And for urgent repairs in remote areas—the simpler and faster, the better.

Will such aircraft make their way from the military to civilian life anytime soon?

First, the Transformer hasn’t made it into military use yet. Even if it isn’t intended for a full combat zone, the prototype has the look of a flimsy toaster—an easy target for anyone aiming to blow it out of the sky.

Advanced Tactics says the final version will, of course, be more aerodynamic. And from the looks of the concept sketches, it’ll be armored too. The final version will be able to tote 1,000 pounds of gear or five passengers almost 300 miles at 150 miles an hour in the air or 70 miles an hour on the ground.

A full demonstration of the technology is expected later this year.

Black-Knight-Transformer-Concept

If consumer flying cars are in the cards, autonomous function, like in the Transformer will be a key development. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be fully qualified pilots. At the most, they should only need to control as much of the flight as they control driving in cars—and really, probably less. (Of course, that’s where cars are already going.)

A few companies are working on “roadable aircraft.”

Examples include the Pal-V roadable gyroplane, and the perennially delayed Terrafugia Transition, a small aircraft whose wings fold in for the road and garage. Both require take-off from an airfield—neither is what you imagine in a flying car.

It’s Terrafugia’s next concept (nowhere near availability) that will make Jetsons fans take note. The TF-X (below) would be autonomous or, if you prefer, would delegate only basic functionality to pilots, making flying more like driving. The aircraft would take off and land vertically but would fold in the rotors in-flight for faster, more plane-like flying.

But until we move past propellers and combustion engines in personal aircraft, flying cars for the masses seem unlikely, even if we do have the capability. Levitating rush hour into the sky (literally) sounds like a terrible idea, but a few flying trucks in and around the battlefield and roadable craft for the occasional millionaire? Sure.

terrafugia-tfx-flying-car

Image Credit: Advanced Tactics; Terrafugia

64 Billion Messages in 24 Hours: Key Takeaways From WhatsApp’s Massively Disruptive Statistics

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64 Billion Messages in 24 Hours: Key Takeaways From WhatsApp’s Massively Disruptive Statistics

whatsapp_banner

In February of this year, Facebook’s $19B acquisition of mobile messaging platform WhatsApp set a record for the largest software acquisition of all time. It set the value of WhatsApp at more than Sony Corporation.

Most recently, the 5-year-old startup broke yet another impressive record – 64 BILLION messages processed in 24 hours. To give you some perspective, that is 10 times the amount sent in the entire US text message industry in one day. That is just insane!

I wanted to share this story with you to discuss 3 key observations:

1) 6 D’s Update – Disruptive and Demonetizing the wireless communications industry: WhatsApp is a $1-per-year service with 465M users. These users are sending 20B messages and receiving 44B messages every day. WhatsApp is both disrupting and demonetizing the entire wireless industry, and now the Facebook acquisition provides the infrastructure needed for WhatsApp to begin offering voice calls. So instead of people paying on average $80 per month, users only have to pay $1 per year for the same services. Wireless carriers, beware. This shift could disrupt more than $100B in annual wireless revenues.

2) Great example of an Exponential Organization: As we learned at Abundance 360, every exponential entrepreneur needs to have a Massively Transformative Purpose (MTP). The founder of WhatsApp, Jan Kou, has one: “Disrupt the wireless industry and stop them from stealing our money.” Jan said, “(I’m) interested in disrupting the way cellphone carriers nickeled-and-dimed customers for text messaging, which was especially useful for those looking to connect with loved ones overseas.” Not even 5 years old and with only 55 employees, WhatsApp has done just that. It is hard to comprehend how in such a short time, one company has grown to handling 3 times more messages than the entire global text message industry. This is exactly the stuff our community is discussing and I’m teaching at Abundance 360. I trust this makes perfect sense and is inspiring instead of terrifying.

3) Why You Should Care: This kind of technological disruption is happening all around us, all the time. The $100B wireless industry was completely taken off guard. If they were able to read a technology road map and knew this was going to happen, they might have had enough time to prepare and capitalize on this shift. Learning how to understand how technology evolves, using tools like a Technology Road Map, is what you need more than anything to ride ontop of the tsunami instead of being crushed by it. This is exactly what we’re going to be focusing on within the Abundance 360 community for the next 25 years.

Quick Stats on WhatsApp:

  • 64B messages processed per day – 20B sent and 44B received
  • 465M users on platform
  • 1M join platform every day
  • 70% of users come back every day
  • $100B mobile communications industry being displaced
  • $18B – Sony is worth less than WhatsApp
  • 50X ROI – Sequoia made on WhatsApp deal
  • 55 employees when sold to Facebook, that’s a price of $375M per employee!!!

[image: flickr/Álvaro Ibáñez]

Google Glass Signals a Wearables Revolution

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Google Glass Signals a Wearables Revolution

glass_display

Google Glass is crazy fun, but don’t worry if you missed your chance to buy a pair on Tuesday, when it went on sale to the public for $1,500.

While the current generation of Google Glass is doomed to become a clunky eBay collectible, it’s nonetheless a leading indicator of a vast wearables revolution poised to sweep into our lives.

That is, if it can get past some hurdles as we speak. There’s been anti-tech backlash against Google Glass. Not everyone is down with it — for reasons such as privacy — but when these challenges are overcome then we’re in for some interesting times.

Eyeglass companies are already designing sleeker, less pricey versions of wearable displays, and developers are busy creating better apps.

Simply put, the information revolution is moving from personal to intimate.

It is just the latest chapter in a long trend that began in the 1980s when computers arrived on our desktops. Then in the 1990s, the gizmos shrank into laptops and disappeared into our backpacks and briefcases.

With the arrival of smartphones a decade ago, our computers now fit into a pocket, becoming constant companions. At each stage of this evolution, our devices insinuated themselves ever deeper into our lives, performing ever more essential tasks and becoming ever more important info-companions.

Now our devices are poised to disappear. They will disappear into our lives as small, absolutely essential tools that we will notice only when we lose them.

Info-glasses today are like PCs in 1984 — they look cool but perform a few functions that aren’t all that useful, such as taking pictures or surfing the Web while sitting in a bar with friends. But just as PCs quickly became vastly more useful than mere word processors, new info-glass apps will allow us to perform more essential tasks.

Professionals from surgeons to surveyors are already prototyping apps that help them work in smarter ways. On the personal front, imagine an app that uses face recognition to tell you the name of the acquaintance walking toward you and your spouse at a cocktail party, sparing everyone the embarrassment of a fumbled introduction.

This is just one example of what is coming. Just as we have been surprised by search and social media, we are certain to be astonished by the capabilities of the device sitting on the bridge of our nose.

The scale of surprise is certain to be huge because info-glasses are just one of a zoo of wearable devices that are coming into our lives. Health-centered devices such as the Fitbit are already wrapping themselves around our wrists, competing for space with a new generation of smart watches.

Other devices will live in our pockets and eventually will be woven into the fabric of the clothes we wear. Some devices are destined to become yet more intimate, living under our skin. Some will be serious medical devices. Others will be for sheer whimsy — imagine a subdermal display that is in effect a changeable electronic tattoo. Hobbyist hackers today can buy an implantable RFID chip kit complete with injector for less than $100. Implant it in your hand and use it to talk with electronic door locks.

All of these devices will communicate with each other and info-glass successors to Google Glass are likely to become an important control panel for communication between wearables and their human owners. Bicyclists will use info-glasses as a heads-up display for everything from road speed and map route to heart rate and glucose levels.

Our new wearables will, with very few exceptions, also be in constant communication with cyberspace and real-time information systems. Parents who are out to dinner will be able to discretely listen in on the baby monitor back home or view streaming video off a bedroom webcam.

The arrival of Google Glass has resulted in a debate over where and when info-glasses can be worn. Just like similar debates over pagers, cell phones and smartphones in years past, wearables will likely be everywhere.

Besides, unlike smartphones, info-glass hardware is going to quickly shrink into near-invisibility. Within a few years, smart glasses will be indistinguishable from an ordinary pair of vintage 2014 specs.

And after that? How about info-contact lens that can check your vital signs?

And privacy? Forget about it. We are destined to become like tagged bears, constantly tracked, but too addicted to the data stream to switch our intimate devices off.

[image credits: flickr/Ted Eytan]

Data Scientist Hacks Monitoring Device, Puts Heartbeat Online

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Data Scientist Hacks Monitoring Device, Puts Heartbeat Online

Jen-Lowe-One-Human-Heartbeat (1)

Data scientist Jen Lowe’s put her heart online. Open her site, One Human Heartbeat, and a cyclopean red eye blinks in rhythm to yesterday’s heartbeat.

Lowe wears a Basis Band fitness tracker. Like other fitness trackers (e.g., FitBit or Nike FuelBand), the Basis Band records simple information (heart rate and body movement), crunches the numbers to infer calories burned, activity duration and quality, and sleep quality, and sends it to a central app that simplifies and displays the information.

It’s hoped fitness trackers and other health wearables will enable folks to better understand themselves and experiment with healthy choices and changes in their lives.

basis-band-fitness-tracker

Basis Band fitness tracker.

Lowe discovered something was missing: the raw data. Because Basis doesn’t provide an open API, she had to hack her device—that was the only way she could view her actual heartbeat and not pre-processed information.

Now, twice daily, she uploads her heartbeat by USB to her computer. Below her heart rate one counter ticks up (13,216 days lived) and another ticks down (16,430 expected remaining days).

What’s the point of all this, you ask?

Big data has plenty of promise in healthcare. But it’s got a few flaws. Lowe told Fast Company it’s actually pretty difficult to access data about our own bodies, in general.

“Corporations data mine our aggregate and individual behavior—every click, every credit card purchase—to better market to us, but I can’t order a lab test of my cortisol levels because I live in New York state [where only doctors can order lab tests].”

Ownership of health data isn’t the only control we might give up to such devices. What does Lowe’s public heartbeat tell us about her?

In fact, not much right now. Basis provides an average heart rate over each minute and about 17.5% of those minutes don’t record any heart rate and have to revert to the previous minute’s average. But if it were real time and if it were live—as it may be soon enough—we could infer when she’s working, walking, sleeping. A little creepy.

And such devices won’t stop at heart rate. They may record a wide range of health data. Blood oxygen, blood glucose, blood pressure, respiration, disease biomarkers—vital statistics and other critical but highly personal health data.

Most people won’t post their stats online (or will they?) but there’s a possibility that, as the data increasingly lives on a server, an interested (and potentially malevolent) third party could view it and use it. Like your credit card information, only more sensitive, depending on who’s looking at it and why.

As the impending avalanche of health data promises earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment, securing that data and determining who controls it will be paramount.

Above all, however, Lowe’s Hal 9000 heartbeat reminds us life is fleeting. Visualizing our own mortality can wake us up and keep us awake. Or not. Speaking from the standpoint of an ever-eager, ever-failing self improver—habit’s a tough habit to kick.

Image Credit: One Human Heartbeat, Basis

Lab-Grown Vaginas Provide Normal Sex Lives for Women With Rare Condition

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Lab-Grown Vaginas Provide Normal Sex Lives for Women With Rare Condition

regenerative medicine, vagina, Anthony Atala, syndrome
The work of scientists trying to manufacture major human organs like the brain and heart in the lab has generated a lot of buzz, even though it will most likely be decades before the lab-grown organs are exact enough to be transplanted into patients.

But scientists are already successfully replicating some of the less intricate parts of the human anatomy. Two such studies led the editors of The Lancet to trumpet in the most recent issue “Tissue engineering’s green shoots of disruptive innovation.”

regenerative medicine, anthony atala, vagina, syndrome, The journal marked two sets of results: In one study, Swiss doctors used patients’ cells and a structure made of pig collagen to provide healthy sinus structure in five patients who had lost much of their noses to skin cancer. In another, Anthony Atala, a pioneer in regenerative medicine, documented that young women who received custom-fitted vaginal canals made from scaffolded human cells grown in the lab, saw healthy tissue grow with their bodies and enjoyed normal sex lives 5-8 years after their surgeries.

Okay, it’s a little weird to be talking about vaginas here, but that’s kind of the point. While this work in regenerative medicine lacks the unembarrassed awe that greets lab-grown hearts and brains, the patients’ quality of life — their ability to have normal sex lives — depends on it.

The young women Atala treated suffered from a rare condition, Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome, in which the vagina, and sometimes the uterus, is absent. The girls were between 13 and 18 years old at the time of the surgeries performed in Mexico City between 2005 and 2008. Their subsequent sexual satisfaction was self-reported using a standard set of criteria.

Currently, women with MRKH syndrome undergo dilation of existing tissue or grafts of skin or the tissue that lines the abdominal cavity. But graft shrinkage and infections are common.

“This may represent a new option for patients who require vaginal reconstructive surgeries. In addition, this study is one more example of how regenerative medicine strategies can be applied to a variety of tissues and organs,” Atala said in a statement provided for press.

Though Atala has used stem cells in other processes, in this case, doctors took a tiny sample of vulvar tissue from each patient and used it to cultivate smooth muscle cells and vaginal epithelial cells in the lab. (In other words, they did not first turn the cells into induced stem cells.)

scaffold-cells-vagina-regenerative-medicineWhile Atala has used 3D printing in some of his treatments, the scaffolds that gave the tissue its shape were hand-sewn from a decellularised segment of pig intestine. 3D printing would be needed to bring costs down if the number of procedures rises.

The structure was surgically attached to the patients’ reproductive organs. The scaffold gradually biodegraded and the cells expanded and formed normal vaginal walls.

Atala, whose lab was the first to implant lab-grown organs into human patients, earned TED fame for a talk in which he showed off a young man who had received a replacement bladder based on an approach similar to the one used in Mexico City. Research for the MRHK treatment began in the early 1990s and had already shown that once cell-seeded scaffolds are implanted in the body, nerves and blood vessels form and the cells expand and form tissue.

As The Lancet observes, this latest work suggests that many quality-of-life medical issues might be helped using the lower-tech, clinic-ready versions of stem cell-inspired therapies.

Images: Wake Forest University

Electrical Stimulation Enables Paralyzed Patients to Move Legs and Stand Again

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Electrical Stimulation Enables Paralyzed Patients to Move Legs and Stand Again

epidural stimulation, electric stimulation, paralysis, walk againRob Summers surprised even his doctors. Doctors had fitted the former University of Oregon basketball player, who had been paralyzed by a hit-and-run driver, with a set of electrodes that stimulated his spinal cord in hopes of bringing back some basic, semi-involuntary forms of motion. But Summers reported being able to produce some voluntary motions.

The development was stunning because intentional movement requires information to travel from the brain down to the lower spinal cord, a pathway that had been rendered nonfunctional by the young man’s injury. The results were published in The Lancet and reported on Singularity Hub.

But was Summers an unusual case, whose spinal cord injury had perhaps been inaccurately diagnosed? To find out, the doctors, led by Claudia Angeli, of the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, launched another study of epidural electrical stimulation, recruiting three more young male subjects. As Angeli and her colleagues report in the latest issue of the journal Brain, these men, too, regained some voluntary movement of their previously lifeless limbs.

“This is groundbreaking for the entire field and offers a new outlook that the spinal cord, even after a severe injury, has great potential for functional recovery,” Angeli said in a news release.

All of the study participants had been injured at least two years before. Two were identified as completely paralyzed, meaning that they could not move or perceive touch below the site of their injury. These two were intended to be a control group, but they also managed to produce voluntary movements when the stimulator was on. Stimulation essentially alerts the brain that information might be coming in from the extremities. Several patients also reported improvements in some of the involuntary and semi-voluntary functions with which paralysis wreaks havoc — bladder and bowel control, blood pressure and sexual function — even when the stimulator was off.

Most of the men are now able to stand on their own for a few minutes at a time.

epidural stimulation, paralysis, Rob SummersThe electrical therapy doesn’t just open up new avenues of treatment for patients of paralysis; it challenges the basic medical understanding of spinal cord injury, the researchers said.

“Rather than there being a complete separation of the upper and lower regions relative to the injury, it’s possible that there is some contact, but that these connections are not functional. The spinal stimulation could be reawakening these connections,” Reggie Edgerton, a UCLA researcher and an author of the studies, said in a news release put out by the NIH, which partially funded the research.

The researchers are now turning their attention to improving the electrical treatment, by upgrading the off-the-shelf stimulator designed to ease severe back pain with one made to awaken the spinal cord. They’re also looking at ways to deliver the electricity through the skin rather than by surgically implanting the device.

But the patients remain focused on increasing their independence and activity.

The Reeve Foundation, which also contributed funding, published video interviews with Rob Summers, and the two remaining patients, Dustin Shillcox and Drew Meas.

Photos: Pressmaster / Shutterstock.com, UCLA

Singularity Surplus: Nowhere to Hide

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Singularity Surplus: Nowhere to Hide

tunnel-vision-LgAdvances in exponential technology happen fast — too fast for Singularity Hub to cover them all. This weekly bulletin points to significant developments to keep readers in the know.

google-glass-for-the-massesWho’s Zoomin’ Who?
Google Glass is available, at least for now, to the masses. But will average consumers ever warm to the eyeglass computers? They’re certainly not there yet, according to market research conducted by Toluna and reported in AdWeek. Seven in 10 Americans says they won’t wear Glass because of privacy concerns. Interestingly, consumers cited fears that they would be recorded by their own devices, reflecting some combination of misunderstanding of how Glass works and extreme skepticism about Google’s overall treatment of user privacy.

cyborg-hackScarification for Geeks
Tired of waiting for that password ring or bracelet? Go the next step and implant a chip in your hand. A December 2013 crowdfunding campaign to sell RFID- and NFC-enabled implantable chips was wildly successful and the company, aptly called Dangerous Things, is now selling the chips. The glass chip comes pre-loaded in a syringe, pain drugs sold separately. We have no idea how or even if this is legal; it certainly doesn’t have FDA approval, but the agency couldn’t tell us if it was investigating.

viral-immunity-influenza-FCan’t Touch This
A brother and sister who suffer from a rare disorder affecting how proteins bond with sugars in the body are immune to most viruses, NIH researchers report in current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. The siblings are very sick — sugar bonding is a part of many healthy bodily process — but they aren’t sick with a viral infection. Most viruses, including influenza and HIV, though not the adenoviruses that cause the common cold, need sugary envelopes to establish themselves in host cells. The rare genetic variant suggests a drug pathway that could also widely target viruses. Drugs called MOG inhibitors stymie, in limited fashion, the same bonding process. The drugs have shown promise as a treatment for HIV infection.

The Way You Look at 90
It’s the oldest software trick in the book to try to predict from a photo what someone will look like when they’re older. But a new age-progression program from researchers at the University of Washington does it really well, and it needs just a single childhood photo as a reference point. (Adult teeth seem to throw it off a bit.) Police could use the software to generate photos of long-missing children, to boost the chances of finding them. Of course, they could also use it to hone in on criminals who’ve been successfully hiding out for decades. Oh, also note that one of the researchers is also a Google employee; the research was funded by Google and Intel.

 Photos: Bruce Rolff / Shutterstock.com, Robert Scoble via Flickr, Dangerous Things, N/A (Wikimedia Commons)

Raspberry Pi Keeps Wowing Us Even Two Years After Launch

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Raspberry Pi Keeps Wowing Us Even Two Years After Launch

RaspberryPi-bAs computers grew smaller and more powerful over the last couple of decades, they also became sleek and pre-packaged, eroding the tinkering ethos that fueled many early computing innovations. As computer science became a more sought-after field of study for young people, those same young people knew less and less about what happened in the guts of their lithe little machines, according to the founders of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, who once read applications at Cambridge University.

With the Raspberry Pi, a programmable credit card-sized computer, the British computer scientists sought to rekindle garage innovation. What would young students do with the power of computing if they could buy a computer for just $35 and access all of its parts?

Well, for many young people and several tech publications, the question has morphed into “Just how geeky would a tech geek be if a tech geek could hack tech?” And the answer, as one could have guessed, was pretty darn geeky. The device has been devoted to geek-culture activities from brewing beer to entertaining cats.

One nostalgic programmer recently made tech news by using a Raspberry Pi to power a clone of the 1980s Commodore 64 computer. Creative and nerdy, to be sure, but are there Pi projects with some social benefit?

Raspberry Pi was designed to expand access to hands-on computing among young people, so we must first mention that it has. Google — not motivated entirely by altruism, one suspects — donated 15,000 Pi computers to secondary schools in the UK. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is offering seminars for British teachers on how to teach computing with its devices.

raspberry pi, technology, computersSome have sought to extended the computing access Raspberry Pi offers, by using it to power an internet server. Others have gone further, showing how to connect household items to the local network to create a tiny personal Internet of Things. Hackers can control lights and automatic garage doors, for example.

These personal use cases don’t do much directly to help make the world a better place, but they may well lead to ways to use home automation technology to reduce energy consumption.

A couple of students at the University of Scranton are using Raspberry Pi computers to dynamically reposition PV solar panels to capture the maximum amount of sunlight each day. They’ve sent two prototype computerized solar panels to Uganda where one will power a water pump and the other will form the basis as a science experiment for students.

raspberry pi, audiobook player, computersComputer technology is also a powerful tool with which to accommodate the needs of the disabled, but the combination of high cost and specialized consumer markets keeps many of these products from having the influence they could. In this domain, Raspberry Pi could be a game-changer. One developer used the device as the basis of a simple audiobook reader with a single button for ease of use.

And then there was the Kansas University competition for clever use cases for the Raspberry Pi. The winner, Rayyan Kamal, described using the tiny computers, connected to the ground, to gauge soil quality and weather. A global network of the devices would provide a powerful tool that could be used by farmers to determine what to grow in the changing climate. Biologists could also use such a network to track shifting ecosystems.

Precision agriculture — in which all the nuances even of a given field are considered when growing food crops — has been heralded by some as our best answer to the challenges posed by increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather patterns. Surveying drones have often been proposed as the way to deliver customized care to each individual plant. But Kamal’s $35 sensors seem like a better way to get data on the growing conditions as opposed to drone-mounted cameras backed by complex artificial intelligence systems to convert photos into irrigation and fertilization recommendations.

Several years and a couple million units into the Raspberry Pi project, it’s not yet clear how much the small, affordable machines will drive projects that improve qualify of life for those who need it most. But it’s encouraging to see a number of ideas for how they could.

Photos: Jwrodgers via Wikimedia Commons, Tim Walker via Flickr, Michael Clemens