The Connected Human

Last week I saw something amazing, almost of Biblical proportions, a paraplegic man walk.  Later that week, I read about new glasses that enable blind people to see as plainly as you are reading this post.  Then yesterday, I head about a new wearable chip that can monitor our critical functions to alert us of impending medical breakdowns.  It occurred to me that while we focus much space on new robotics in the metal sense, I often neglected the great device to be modernized, the mortal human.

Esko Bionics offers people suffering from spinal cord injury (SCI) or disease, and other forms of lower extremity paralysis or weakness due to Multiple Sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parksinson’s Guillain Barre or other neurological disease the ability to walk again using a ready-to-wear exoskeleton.  This battery powered bionic suit is easily strapped over a patients clothing to magically lift them from a wheelchair to eye level with their family, friends and physical therapists. The device transfers its 45 lb. load directly to the ground, so the patient doesn’t bear the weight. Each Ekso can be adjusted in a few minutes to fit most people weighing 220 pounds or less, and between 5’2” and 6’2”, with at least partial upper body strength. The patient provides the balance and proper body positioning, and Ekso facilitates walking over ground with reciprocal gait. While Esko is currently being deployed in rehabilitation clinics and hospitals across the country, users will have to wait a couple of years before they are ready for home use and reimbursed by insurance companies. I wrote about a year ago about another exoskeleton company called ReWalk, Esko is different as it is focused currently on the professional therapy market vs. the home market which requires a hefty price tag.  Please note that ReWalk is now targeting rehab as well, all these players means our fallen brothers in arms will one day be walking again.

OrCam is another invention that helps 1 out of 10,000 people who are suffering from coloboma, or a birth defect that perforates a structure of the eye.  This Israeli bases start up has developed a camera-based system intended to give the visually impaired the ability to both “read” easily and move freely. Specifically, the OrCam device is a small camera worn in the style of Google Glass, connected by a thin cable to a portable computer designed to fit in the wearer’s pocket. The system clips on to the wearer’s glasses with a small magnet and uses a bone-conduction speaker to offer clear speech as it reads aloud the words or object pointed to by the user. OrCam is priced at $2,500 for the home market which is estimated to be over 20 million in the United States or 340 million worldwide.

According to the NY Times, the OrCam system is representative of a wide range of rapid improvements being made in the field of artificial intelligence, in particular with vision systems for manufacturing as well as fields like autonomous motor vehicles. (Dr. Shashua previously founded Mobileye, a corporation that supplies camera technology to the automobile industry that can recognize objects like pedestrians and bicyclists and can keep a car in a lane on a freeway.) In addition, Speech recognition is now routinely used by tens of millions of people on both iPhones and Android smartphones. Moreover, natural language processing is making it possible for computer systems to “read” documents, which is having a significant impact in the legal field, among others. According to the VP of R&D at OrCam, “People who have low vision will continue to have low vision, but we want to harness computer science to help them.” Although the system is usable by the blind today, just wait a few years.

According to BusinessWeek the next wave of circuitry, is going to be wearable electronics or chips that are no bigger than a postage stamp.  A startup in Cambridge, Mass., called MC10 aims to develop a manufacturing technology that will allow digital circuits to be embedded in fabric or flexible plastic. MC10’s approach means we will no longer “wear” technology like jewelry but have it sit unobtrusively on our skin or inside our bodies. “By embedding technology in bendable, stretchable materials, you can start to think about entirely new form factors for electronics,” says Benjamin Schlatka, a co-founder of MC10.

The BioStamp is MC10’s first flexible computing prototype. It’s a collection of sensors that can be applied to the skin like a Band-Aid or, because it’s even thinner than that, a temporary tattoo. The sensors within collect data such as body temperature, heart rate, brain activity, and exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Using near field communication—a wireless technology that allows devices to share data (think E-ZPass)—the BioStamp can upload its information to a nearby smartphone for analysis.

Besides being unobtrusive, a device such as the BioStamp can be worn constantly (each lasts about two weeks), which changes the nature of medical diagnosis. Until now, understanding what’s happening inside a body only happens when that body is being actively examined. Implantable sensors can provide full-time monitoring. “You want it to be happening in the background, without thinking about it,” says MC10 Chief Executive Officer David Icke, who worked in the chip and cleantech industries before joining MC10 just over four years ago. “The idea behind continuous pickup of information is you get access to health care when you need it.”

This kind of constant monitoring fuels sci-fi visions of the future, when an ambulance may pull up next to you because the implanted sensors in your body are picking up the earliest indications of a heart attack. The BioStamp is expected to cost less than $10 per unit, and MC10 aims to have a commercial product in the next five years.

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