While working as a professor in the sensory-motor systems lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), Robert Riener noticed a need for assistive devices that would better meet the challenge of helping people with daily life. He knew there were solutions, but that it would require motivating developers to rise to the challenge.
So, Riener created Cybathlon, the first cyborg Olympics where teams from all over the world will participate in races on Oct. 8 in Zurich that will test how well their devices perform routine tasks. Teams will compete in six different categories that will push their assistive devices to the limit on courses developed carefully over three years by physicians, developers and the people who use the technology. Eighty teams have signed up so far.
Riener wants the event to emphasize how important it is for man and machine to work together—so participants will be called pilots rather than athletes, reflecting the role of the assistive technology.
“The goal is to push the development in the direction of technology that is capable of performing day-to-day tasks. And that way, there will an improvement in the future life of the person using the device,” says Riener.
Here’s a look at events that will be featured in the first cyborg Olympics.
Brain-Computer Interface Race
A woman sits at a computer while wearing a cap that has several electrodes attached to her head, wires cascading down her back waves. She’s playing a video game, but instead of using her hands, she’s using only her thoughts to drive a brain-computer interface system.
During the Cybathlon, participants with complete or severely impaired motor function will use their thoughts to control an avatar in a racing video game. The winner will be the first to complete the race, maneuvering an avatar over obstacles and accelerating to the finish line. An algorithm will help determine which team’s interface performed the best. Brain-computer interface devices are a key technologies that will allow people to control future prostheses with their minds.
Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race
Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) is a technique that sends electrical impulses to paralyzed individuals’ muscles to trigger movement. FES can help build muscle mass, increase blood circulation and and improve cardiovascular health. At Cybathlon, paralyzed bike racers will rely on FES to complete about five laps around a racetrack, equalling about 2,200 feet — first to the finish wins. Electrodes will deliver electrical stimulation to their muscles, giving them the leg-power to pedal their bikes. The pilots can actually control how much current they send to their muscles, so balancing speed and stamina will be key to winning the race.
Generally, electrodes are placed on a persons’s skin, but one team—the Center for Advanced Platform Technology from Cleveland—will surgically implant them closer to nerves where they can reach more fiber, reduce muscle fatigue and increase precision. Members of Team Cleveland developed implants — over the course of two decades — that allow a person with paraplegia to stand, perform leg lifts and take steps. For Cybathlon, they’ll adapt their system for bike riding.
Powered Arm Prosthesis Race
The powered arm prosthesis race will show just how important performing basic, daily tasks are to Riener. Pilots with arm amputations will need to carry a tray of breakfast items, for example, and then prepare a meal by opening a jar of jam, slicing bread and putting butter on the bread — tasks that are easy to take for granted. Pinning clothing on a clothes line and putting together a puzzle with pieces that will each require a different type of grip are also challenges in this event.
A prosthetic hand created by the M.A.S.S. Impact team from Simon Fraser University in Canada is a unique design that uses sensors and algorithms to recognize a grip pattern, and users can control the bionic hand in small, precise movements. The system also generates computer models to improve function over time. Last year, organizers held a Cybathlon rehearsal last year, and Riener was especially impressed by OPRA Osseointegratio, a Swedish team that designed a surgically implanted hand controlled by a person voluntarily contracting his muscles. The technology is currently in human trials, and the team’s pilot is the first recipient.
Powered Leg Prosthesis Race
Designing prostheses for lower limbs presents an entirely different set of challenges. Riener hopes to see prosthetic legs at the Cybathlon that can handle uneven terrain, which has been a challenge in the past. During the leg prosthesis race, pilots will compete on parallel tracks through obstacle courses laden with beams, stones, stairs and slopes. Right now, only the most advanced prostheses can handle these challenges — many are heavy and aren’t powerful enough.
Team Össur will bring four different prosthetic legs to the competition. Riener says this team in particular is making incredible advancements in the field. He’s particularly impressed with their commercially available motorized knee prosthesis, as he says it’s more robust and reliable than many past devices. The team is also entering a powered leg prosthesis that is an upgrade to the powered knee and is still a prototype stage; it uses motorized joints to help achieve a natural gait.
Powered Exoskeleton Race
Exoskeletons are worn around the legs to help those with paraplegia walk or even climb stairs. While they’ve been used by physiotherapists in hospitals to improve the health of patients with paralyzed legs, Riener says many designs are still bulky and difficult to use on a daily basis. There are about six companies around the world with exoskeletons on the market, and more prototypes are being developed in research labs around the world.
The Cybathlon exoskeleton event will include tasks that are particularly difficult for people using this technology to accomplish, such as stepping over stones and walking up a slope.
“With these challenges, we’re hoping to see more lifelike exoskeletons with more movability,” says Riener.
Powered Wheelchair Race
Those who use wheelchairs encounter challenges that other people might take for granted. Riener is excited to see how powered wheelchairs are evolving, getting smaller and more capable—in some cases even climbing stairs.
“At Cybathlon, they will have to fit beneath a table, go up a steep ramp, open a door and then close it again, and go down a steep ramp,” says Riener.
Scewo, a team from ETH Zurich developed a wheelchair that balances on two wheels like a Segway and can use a chain to climb up stairs or steep ramps.
While some of the teams are entering technology that is already on the market, Riener is especially excited to see new innovations that have been created from scratch, specifically for Cybathlon.
“It’s exciting to reach a large audience to talk about issues related to people with disabilities,” he says.
A nuclear-armed Pakistani aircraft crashes just over the Indian border and the situation is about to spiral out of control. In Washington D.C., nuclear physicists and geopolitical analysts belonging to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists are meeting to decide whether to advance the “Doomsday Clock” ahead by two minutes.
The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic representation of the level danger on planet Earth, and moving it ahead two minutes would take it to two minutes before midnight — two minutes before the end. This fictional scenario played out on a recent episode of Madam Secretary, but the Clock has been used as a snapshot of the dangers we face for well over five decades. But how do the hands on the Clock tick? Read More
3D printing, and additive manufacturing processes more generally, have made many advances in recent years. Just a few years ago, most 3D printing was only used for building prototypes, which would then go on to be manufactured via conventional processes. But it’s now increasingly being used for manufacturing in its own right.
Nearly two years ago, NASA even sent a 3D printer to the International Space Station with the goal of testing how the technology works in micro-gravity. While the printer resembles a Star Trek replicator, it’s not quite that sophisticated yet; the objects it can print are small prototypes for testing.
What I really want to do is to use the machine to complete the Sagrada Familia. And to build on the moon.
NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and entrepreneurs aiming to jump-start human colonization of space see the 3D printing of large scale objects, including entire habitations, as a major enabling technology for the future of space exploration.
In 2013, a project led by the ESA used simulated lunar regolith – i.e. loose top soil – to produce a 1.5-ton hollow cell building block. It was conceived as part of a dome shelter for a lunar base that would also incorporate an inflatable interior structure. The project used a D-Shape printer using Enrico Dini’s company, Monolite.
Since 2011, NASA has been funding similar research led by Professor Behrokh Khoshnevies at the University of Southern California. His team has been using a technology called contour crafting, which also has the goal of using 3D printing to construct entire space habitations from in situ resources.
After testing 3D printing in space, NASA has decided the technology is close to a tipping point. As part of a new program of public/private partnerships aimed at pushing emerging space capabilities over these tipping points, NASA has awarded a major contract to the Archinaut project.
The project will see a 3D printer, built by Made in Space, mated with a robotic arm, built by Oceaneering Space Systems, with Northrup Grumman providing the control software and integration with the ISS systems.
The goal of the project is to provide an on-orbit demonstration of large, complex structure – in this case a boom for a satellite – sometime in 2018.
But 3D manufacturing is already changing the aerospace industry. Composites, for example, have become a commonly used material for a wide variety of applications.
But composites tend to suffer weakness between their laminating layers, which can lead to material failures in crucial components. 3D weaving, which deploys fibers on three axes, is set to revolutionize these materials and their performances.
But the ability to use in situ materials, both for fuel, water and construction whether on the moon, Mars, or asteroids has long been recognized as a crucial ability to enable human exploration of the solar system.
Contests such as last the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, are an important element of an innovation strategy designed to push the envelope of technology, leveraging entrepreneurial spirit, scientific and technological know-how and design thinking in a bid to take human space exploration to the next level.
The winning design, announced at the New York Makers Faire in September, was the Mars Ice House.
The Mars Ice House Habitat, which would be printed out of ice from relatively abundant water on Mars’ northern hemisphere, is a far cry from the bunker-like spaces frequently envisioned for Mars bases. The ice would provide ample radiation protection while creating a radiant, light filled space reminiscent of a cathedral.
Space exploration has always been associated with visionary fiction and grandiose plans, and it looks like 3D manufacturing and construction may finally bring the printed word to life.
Nuclear fusion has long been considered the “holy grail” of energy research. It represents a nearly limitless source of energy that is clean, safe and self-sustaining. Ever since its existence was first theorized in the 1920s by English physicist Arthur Eddington, nuclear fusion has captured the imaginations of scientists and science-fiction writers alike.
Fusion, at its core, is a simple concept. Take two hydrogen isotopes and smash them together with overwhelming force. The two atoms overcome their natural repulsion and fuse, yielding a reaction that produces an enormous amount of energy.
But a big payoff requires an equally large investment, and for decades we have wrestled with the problem of energizing and holding on to the hydrogen fuel as it reaches temperatures in excess of 150 million degrees Fahrenheit. To date, the most successful fusion experiments have succeeded in heating plasma to over 900 million degrees Fahrenheit, and held onto a plasma for three and a half minutes, although not at the same time, and with different reactors.
The most recent advancements have come from Germany, where the Wendelstein 7-X reactor recently came online with a successful test run reaching almost 180 million degrees, and China, where the EAST reactor sustained a fusion plasma for 102 seconds, although at lower temperatures.
Still, even with these steps forward, researchers have said for decades that we’re still 30 years away from a working fusion reactor. Even as scientists take steps toward their holy grail, it becomes ever more clear that we don’t even yet know what we don’t know. Read More
If you use a car to get around, every time you get behind the wheel you’re confronted with a choice: how will you navigate to your destination? Whether it’s a trip you take every day, such as from home to work, or to someplace you haven’t been before, you need to decide on a route.
Transportation research has traditionally assumed that drivers are very rational and choose the optimal route that minimizes travel time. Traffic prediction models are based on this seemingly reasonable assumption. Planners use these models in their efforts to keep traffic flowing freely – when they evaluate a change to a road network, for instance, or the impact of a new carpool lane. In order for traffic models to be reliable, they must do a good job reproducing user behavior. But there’s little empirical support for the assumption at their core – that drivers will pick the optimal route. Read More
Go is a two-player board game that originated in China more than 2,500 years ago. The rules are simple, but Go is widely considered the most difficult strategy game to master. For artificial intelligence researchers, building an algorithm that could take down a Go world champion represents the holy grail of achievements.
Well, consider the holy grail found. A team of researchers led by Google DeepMind researchers David Silver and Demis Hassabis designed an algorithm, called AlphaGo, which in October 2015 handily defeated back-to-back-to-back European Go champion Fan Hui five games to zero. And as a side note, AlphaGo won 494 out of 495 games played against existing Go computer programs prior to its match with Hui — AlphaGo even spotted inferior programs four free moves.
“It’s fair to say that this is five to 10 years ahead of what people were expecting, even experts in the field,” Hassabis said in a news conference Tuesday. Read More
In fall, DARPA announced a major success in its Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program. Researchers implanted targeted electrical arrays in the brains of a few dozen volunteers — specifically in brain areas involved in memory.
The researchers found a way to read out neural “key codes” associated with specific memories, and then fed those codes back into the volunteers’ brains as they tried to recall lists of items or directions to places. While the results are still preliminary, DARPA claims that the RAM technique has already achieved “promising results” in improving memory retrieval.
Intriguing as this implant is, it’s only the latest in an ongoing series of neurological techniques and gizmos designed to boost and sharpen memory. The effects and implications of these systems raise questions that are worth consideration. Read More
The world’s most powerful gene-editing tool, CRISPR-Cas9, gives humans the ability to swap out sections of the genome with less money and time than ever before. That’s a lot of power, and with great power comes great responsibility.
But right now, most of the world doesn’t have regulations about what scientists — and someday, hobbyists — can and can’t do to the double helix. In China, scientists have used CRISPR-Cas9 to modify human embryos. And that has left the rest of the world a little nervous. Read More
Watch a fly land on the kitchen table, and the first thing it does is clean itself, very, very carefully. Although we can’t see it, the animal’s surface is covered with dust, pollen and even insidious mites that could burrow into its body if not removed.
Staying clean can be a matter of life and death. All animals, including us human beings, take cleaning just as seriously. Each year, we spend an entire day bathing, and another two weeks cleaning our houses. Cleaning may be as fundamental to life as eating, breathing and mating. Read More
If you’ve ever tried to hold a conversation with a chatbot like CleverBot, you know how quickly the conversation turns to nonsense, no matter how hard you try to keep it together.
But now, a research team led by Bruno Golosio, assistant professor of applied physics at Università di Sassari in Italy, has taken a significant step toward improving human-to-computer conversation. Golosio and colleagues built an artificial neural network, called ANNABELL, that aims to emulate the large-scale structure of human working memory in the brain — and its ability to hold a conversation is eerily human-like. Read More