Saturday, October 12, 2013

Q&A with Henry Evans, Silicon Valley robotics pioneer

From The San Jose Mercury News in California:

Henry Evans' kids in the back seat noticed it first. Their father (pictured), a Stanford MBA and the chief financial officer at a Silicon Valley software startup, was slurring his words as he drove the children to school along Page Mill Road.

"He said, 'I feel sick' and the kids were scared," recalled Henry's wife, Jane. "They thought he was going to drive off the road. He came back home and was hanging on to the walls, losing his equilibrium. He kept saying, 'I just need to sleep.'"

In the next few hours, Evans' life would change dramatically. Diagnosed with a strokelike brainstem disorder, the father of four was left mute and quadriplegic, his mental faculties fully intact, but able to move only one finger.

After years of therapy, Evans has thrived. Using a head-tracking device and a laser pointer to spell out words on a letter board, he has written a cookbook, launched a small winery that his wife tends to, and started working with researchers on using robots to help the severely disabled become more self-sufficient.

We spoke with Evans by email. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Tell us about your experiences following your brainstem episode in 2002.
A: I woke up in the ICU, unable to speak or move. When I started to come to, I was on life support. My kids cried when they saw me. I remember Jane singing "Phantom of the Opera" songs to me, because she had heard that people in comas can often hear you. She noticed I was following along with my eyes. I soon realized they were all I could move. It took several months to comprehend what had actually happened, and about five years to decide my life was still worth living, due in no small part to Jane.

Q: Eventually, though, you learned to communicate without words.
A: I was trapped in my own body. All I could do initially was blink. I was not able to breathe on my own, and had a feeding tube up my nose. My brother Pete is an engineer and he made my first (letter) board based on something he read on the Internet. I would look at a group of letters and they would read them out. Two blinks was "yes," one was "no." That way we would slowly spell out each word I wanted to say, letter by letter.

Q: Tell us how you worked with students at Palo Alto High School to come up with the "Laserfinger."
A: I contacted an old friend, Chris Tacklind, and gave him a crude PowerPoint drawing of my idea, which I had laboriously made with my headtracker. Chris said it was a perfect project for the robotics team he was mentoring. Not only did the team design a very clever prototype, but they applied for, and won, a grant from MIT to build a working prototype, along with an invitation to present it at MIT. The team had designed and built two custom circuit boards, which allowed me to control anything electrical I could point the laser at. I demonstrated it by controlling a light and a doggy treat dispenser.

Q: How did you end up working with robots?
A: I caught a CNN interview of Georgia Tech professor Charlie Kemp showing research he'd done with (Menlo Park-based robotics firm) Willow Garage's PR2 robot, and I immediately imagined using it as a body surrogate. I emailed Willow Garage and Kemp shortly afterward, and for the next two years, they collaborated with me on using robots as body.

Q: Talk more about that collaboration.
A: I emailed them with my headtracker, and they loved the idea and we just started collaborating almost immediately. I came up with many of the general ideas and they did all of the engineering. "Robots for Humanity" is the name I came up with in 2007 to describe the efforts of everyone who was using technology to help me. It became most strongly associated with the robot project at Willow Garage and Kemp's Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech.

Q: So, how have robots helped you become more self-sufficient?
A: We are still doing research, including using the robot in my house, so it's premature to say I regularly use the robot. Some of our successful projects include my directing the robot to scratch me, shave me, shave someone 3,000 miles away, open my refrigerator and fetch me a bottle, open a drawer to fetch a towel and use it to wipe my face, throw away trash, and pull up my blanket.

Q: How do you see robotics helping the severely disabled in the future?
A: The first fruit of our labor is a camera drone that will enable bedridden/paralyzed people to explore the world around them. It's not hard to imagine using robots in a few years to remotely monitor and even perform simple tasks for disabled/elderly people, in lieu of having human caregivers 100 percent of the time.