For centuries, before refrigeration, an old Russian practice was to drop a frog into a bucket of milk to keep the milk from spoiling. In modern times, many believed that this was nothing more than an old wives’ tale. But researchers at Moscow State University, led by organic chemist Dr. Albert Lebedev, have shown that there could be some benefit to doing this, though of course in the end you’ll be drinking milk that a frog was in.
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).
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.
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
HBO and Amazon just put a ring on it with a giant, multi-year deal that will put HBO originals on Amazon Prime exclusively. Woooooo! That means HBO subscription to watch old episodes of everything from the Wire to Eastbound & Down. In this game of everything-but-Game-of-Thrones, everyone wins; Amazon, HBO, and you, dear TV watcher. Everyone, that is, except maybe Netflix.
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]
Rob 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.
“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.
Photos: Pressmaster / Shutterstock.com, UCLA
Way back on September 27th, 1986, the city of Cleveland was taken over by 1.5 million helium-filled balloons. The photos are amazing. The aftermath was not. Tom Holowach, the project manager of Balloonfest ’86, popped by Kinja to say hello, and has kindly offered to answer all your questions about the event. The sky’s the limit, people!
The current donation system, though it supplies scores of millions of patients in need every year, suffers from shortages and some inherent flaws. Many parts of the world find blood regularly in short supply, and donated blood risks transmitting infectious diseases, such as HIV. What’s more, patients and donors must have compatible blood types.
“Any time you get a new treatment approved using stem cells, it’s a big deal. Having the ability to produce red blood cells from human embryonic stem cells would be enormously useful in terms of creating whole new blood supplies for people in need of transfusions, and of course for use in treating all manner of wounds, injuries and surgical problems,” Kevin McCormack, director of public communications at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, told Singularity Hub.
Researchers say they will make all of the stem cell-derived blood in the universal donor type of O-negative.
Because blood transfusions are so commonplace in modern medicine, delivering them through stem cells would push such therapies well into the medical mainstream. But providing the transfusions will also require industrial-scale production in what is still a delicate process of coaxing specialized cells from elastic stem cells: Each bag of blood contains roughly 2 trillion red blood cells. (Blood transfusions consist entirely of red blood cells.)
With more than $8 million in funding from the Wellcome Trust, the manufacturing will be handled by Edinburgh-based Roslin Cells, based on a collaboration with the Scottish National Blood Service and researcher Marc Turner of the MRC Center for Regenerative Medicine.
“Currently, we’re producing 100,000 million red blood cells, or up to 5 milliliters of blood,” Turner said in a video about the project. “But when you think that in an average liter of blood, there’s about 2.5 million red blood cells you can see that we still have some way to go.”
The effort to make so many stem cells is at once the biggest challenge to and the most significant contribution of the Scottish project.
The clinical trial may be the first announced for humans, but it’s not impossible that another team could get there first. Several groups, including some funded by CIRM, have been working toward the goal of manufactured blood. But even if the Scots get scooped, the scale-up in production in anticipation of the trial will almost certainly pave the way for bigger production efforts in other areas of stem cell research.
“Producing a cellular therapy which is of the scale, quality and safety required for human clinical trials is a very significant challenge,” Turner said. “These developments will also provide information of value to other researchers working on the development of cellular therapies.”
It’s a major step towards getting stem cell therapies out of the lab and into clinics and hospitals. Yet, mass-producing genetically specific transplant items, such as bone marrow, will be another thing entirely. Researchers creating blood use embryonic stem cells, obtained mainly from discarded blastocysts from fertility clinics. Stem cells created with a patient’s own genetic material, called induced pluripotent stem cells, remain laborious and expensive to produce.
Images: Malota / Shutterstock.com, Wellcome Library