The last day of VMworld traditionally highlights innovation and features individuals and organizations leveraging technology to extend the limits of what’s possible. This year’s keynote showcased three people pushing life-changing ideas to improve humanity. These last-day sessions aren’t limited to VMware’s core markets but rather serve to inform, inspire, and celebrate the impact of innovation.
Hugh Herr is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, director of the lab’s Biomechatronics Group, and a double-amputee. When he was a teenager, his legs were amputated after he suffered severe frostbite while climbing New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington.
After his amputation, Herr—who is good with his hands—fashioned his own prosthetics. As devices go, the braces were passive and dumb, he noted, and not dissimilar to an artificial toe made of wood and leather in ancient Egypt. This personal experience led him to pursue improving life for disabled people as a career.
Amputation, a technique that hasn’t advanced significantly since the U.S. Civil War, is one of the areas of focus at MIT. Traditional amputation severs the muscle and leaves it dysfunctional, but Herr and his team are pioneering ways of wiring musculature to smart prosthetics to enable bionic limbs to electronically communicate with the nervous system.
“If you give the spinal cord enough information, it knows what to do,” said Herr.
The smart prosthetics are outfitted with sensors and computers that are able to communicate with the body and give patients remarkable mobility. Even more, Herr confirmed, the new devices soon become part of the patient’s self-identity.
“We had a patient who said, ‘It’s my leg now. It’s mine, it’s me,’” Herr said. “We have a theory now: to feel is to be. When a person feels a mechatronic device in their nervous system, it doesn’t matter if it’s flesh and bone or titanium and silicon. It does not matter.”
Herr and Bob Langer, an MIT colleague, are also making advances on paralysis. A promising technique that combines a polymer scaffolding with stem cells was able to reverse paralysis in a mouse and has shown early promise with human patients. Herr believes this will enable the treatment of spinal injuries by rebuilding the spine and wiring it to the muscles using emerging technology.
“We can conquer disability through technological innovation,” said Herr. “I happen to have the minor defect that my legs are amputated; it’s really no big deal. But it would be a big deal if I didn’t have these bionic limbs. With these bionic limbs I can run, play tennis, and climb mountains.”
Herr concluded with a promising look toward the future: “We will ultimately eliminate all disabilities in this century.”
Making Tech More Human
Rana el Kaliouby is a scientist from University of Cambridge, and CEO and co-founder of Affectiva, a company that is developing emotion-sensing algorithms that aim to change how we interact with machines.
Kaliouby grew up in Cairo but went to university in Cambridge, in the United Kingdom. While abroad, she realized that she spent more time with her laptop than with other human beings. Kaliouby was homesick, and her computer was her primary conduit to her family. Despite monopolizing her time, she realized, her computer had no idea if she was sad, happy, or how she felt.
“The way we interface with technology is with its own language, not ours. And on its own terms, not ours,” said Kaliouby. “People rage against these interfaces and find them very frustrating because they are emotionally blind and lack heart. The technology has cognitive intelligence but lacks emotional intelligence.”
In response, she and her team have created an emotional artificial intelligence (AI) platform built on deep learning technologies. The team feeds it millions of images to teach it facial expressions and has automated a facial recognition system.
The platform has shown expression can differ by things like culture and gender. Kaliouby pointed out that, worldwide, women are generally more facially expressive than men. However, that ranges across cultures. For instance, in the United Kingdom there is little difference between the expressiveness of genders.
Her team put the core engine they developed into a software development kit (SDK) and released it publicly. A partnership with the MIT Media Lab resulted in a robot that was able to teach kids Spanish faster. Other projects include an emotionally intelligent robot that helps patients with medication, and new ways to monitor for depression and suicide prevention.
“Emotional artificial intelligence is the next frontier for AI. It allows us an opportunity to change both how we engage with technology and, ultimately, how we connect with one another,” she said.
Operate Twice, Cut Once
Peter Weinstock is the director of the Pediatric Simulator Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. He and his team are pioneering a game-changing approach to medicine.
The issue for Weinstock is that doctors, particularly surgeons, don’t have an adequate way to practice, refine, and hone their skills. Medicine is built on the apprentice model, which typically has a surgeon observe an operation, perform an operation, and then teach others to perform that same operation. The more rare the condition or the more challenging the operation, the less likely that the doctor has had hands-on experience. In addition, human beings differ anatomically, and human anatomy can change over time—all of which can present unexpected challenges to doctors.
“Unfortunately, it sometimes becomes necessary to practice on your patient,” said Weinstock. “Until now, there has been no other choice.”
Weinstock is changing that. He leads a multidisciplinary team made up of experts in imaging, industrial design, virtual reality, 3D printing, and other non-medical specialists. The team uses CAT scans and MRIs to reproduce patient anatomy. Organs are recreated on 3D printers, and Hollywood special effects artists add a layer of verisimilitude. Haptics are built into the models in order to mimic reality as closely as possible.
Once the medical staff has created a model of the patient, the operating team assembles in a practice space located next to the operating room. Together, they practice the operation on the model and then comprehensively debrief to critique team performance. The team continues to do this as many times as needed until they feel they have mastered the operation. After, they move next door and operate on the real patient, confident in the knowledge they have done it before.
The approach has resulted in better efficacy, reduced operating times, and lower hospital-wide infections.
“I used to say to a parent that we’d seen similar operations before and that their child was in good hands,” said Weinstock. “Now I say, we successfully completed your child’s surgery two hours ago; we are now ready for your child.”
Herr, Kaliouby, and Weinstock were all warmly received by the the VMworld audience, which has grown to expect lively presentations about emerging technology. As technology continues to disrupt industries and push forward new ideas, there remains a place on the VMworld main stage to highlight the people and tech leading the way.