The second annual Rehabilitation Robotics Workshop
Via Patrick McGurrin
The second annual Rehabilitation Robotics Workshop, hosted by the Fulton School of Engineering at Arizona State University, went above and beyond that of the previous year. The conference, a two-day gathering of renowned roboticists, neuroscientists, and rehabilitation specialists, facilitated discussion of ongoing issues related to research in rehabilitation and sensorimotor function. Neuroprosthetics were of particular interest at the conference because of their potential for 1) helping to restore function to a paralytic limb and 2) designing an artificial limb with high functional capability. This field is of particular interest to rehabilitation technology in that these novel designs are implementing an interface capable of integration with the user’s own central nervous system, making it possible for users to have more natural control of the device with decreased cognitive load, more precise level of control, and most importantly, a reinstatement of sensory information in the affected limb. The conference, as a whole, celebrated current advancements in robotics and neuroprosthetics while shedding light on key current issues. Having attended both years, it was remarkable to see the progress of a single year.
Dr. Andrew Schwartz opened the conference as the first plenary speaker. Dr. Schwartz, a professor of Neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh, gave an extensive overview of our progress in understanding the neural component of the motor system since the late 1980s. He ended his talk with his own work, highlighting his more recent accomplishments. Dr. Schwartz recently published work on high performance brain-computer interfacing. To put it simply, Schwartz and his colleagues designed a technology that enabled a quadriplegic woman to control a robotic arm using her own thoughts via an electrode array placed over her motor cortex. Click here so see a video of this remarkable new work.
The second day of the conference was commenced with an insightful talk by Dr. Antonio Bicchi, a professor of robotics at the University of Pisa and senior scientist at the Italian Institute of Technology. Dr. Bicchi spoke of his academic journey from exploring the capabilities of robot technology to applying his expertise to helping understand and advance current challenges in prosthetic design. He dedicated much of his time to presenting his newest design, the PISA IIT Softhand. He stressed the need for a prosthetic hand that allows a user to easily use all of their fingers while reducing cost, cognitive load, and potential for error or damage to the hand. His talk was a core theme of the workshop, that is, designing new technology in order to maximize functionality.
Overall, the Rehabilitation robotics workshop highlighted a few core ideas. These ideas nicely reflected those from the previous year. Firstly, we need to understand how our nervous system works. We have come to understand so much, but we must continue this journey to truly begin to grasp the complexity of how our system enables movement. Secondly, how do we take advantage of this system to restore function to someone who has lost a limb? What are the technical requirements, and how do we recreate the sensory and motor functionality that people require for true restoration of function. Better yet, how do we do this while reducing costs? Lastly, how are these novel technologies impacting the people who they are designed for? Assistive technology is futile without a user who is interested and excited to use the device. It was clear that each speaker throughout both days had this important thought in mind, and is using it to drive their research forward.