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Technology will surely conquer disabilities

Vol.09 Technology will surely conquer disabilities
Ken Endo | Researcher, Sony Computer Science Laboratory
Launching research on robotic prosthetic legs at MIT

My dream is to develop technologies
that will benefit people around us

I used to do research on humanoid robots at a university. But upon learning that my research on humanoid robots would not enable me to develop technologies that would be of immediate use to my friend who lost a leg to bone cancer, I resolved to study prosthetic legs instead. I decided to study at the Media Lab of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where I found a professor who was conducting research into artificial legs. Hiroaki Kitano, now head of Sony Computer Science Laboratories (CSL), wrote a letter of recommendation for me.

Building on the five years of research into artificial legs using robotics at MIT, I managed to lay the groundwork for commercialization. After I completed my doctoral course at MIT, Mr.Kitano invited me to drop in to CSL. This gave me the opportunity to give a presentation on plans for research relating to artificial legs, and eventually resulted in my joining CSL. As I respect Mr.Kitano very much, I was delighted he invited me to join. I was very excited to work at CSL, which is unique in the world for its commitment to contributing to humankind.

A working prototype of a robotic leg that reproduces the functions of the ankle

Experiencing Sony's free corporate climate
and its monozukuri culture

CSL has established three themes for research into artificial legs. The first is robotic legs. Motors are used to reproduce ankle functions. This theme continues the work I did during my time at MIT. At CSL, we are attempting to reduce the weight of the robotic legs using our own theories to incorporate springs as well as motors. The second theme is prosthetic legs for emerging economies. It so happens that an enormous number of people in emerging economies have lower-leg disabilities. For this reason, we are developing prosthetic legs that can be manufactured in countries that are not economically rich and at prices that the local population can readily afford. We have faced many problems that could not be resolved by technology alone, but we are at last in the final stages of creating a prototype and are confident that a mass production system can be established. The third theme is prosthetic legs for sports. These artificial legs are designed specially for competitive running, and we are in the midst of developing the best possible design using simulations for investigating how muscles work.

Individual researchers at CSL are engaged in their own independent research. As such, they sometimes reach an impasse in their work. However, invaluable stimulus is provided by an open atmosphere that allows not only the researchers within CSL but the Sony engineers outside CSL to interact at such times. We get to know Sony engineers from various fields through our research. I'm always astounded at their high-level skills whenever I meet them. Moreover, most of them show great interest in our research even though it has no direct relevance to the products they normally deal with. When I come into contact with engineers like this, I am impressed by the free corporate climate that allows few barriers among individual employees, and Sony's vibrant single-minded monozukuri culture.

Focus on the future of humankind,
not on immediate profit

One of the best things about researching at CSL is the fact that everything I study, from state-of-the-art prosthetic legs for sports and robotic legs to low-cost legs for people living in emerging economies is treated as a single research path. Research on artificial legs for emerging economies does not tie into profits easily, and companies generally treat it as charitable work that takes a back seat to potentially profitable research going on at the same time. However, in the sense that we engage in monozukuri because the needs exist and are subject to constraints in terms of costs and materials, all prosthetic legs are the same. If anything, I believe that carrying out different sorts of research simultaneously is likely to yield considerable benefits. CSL allows the research to proceed with this recognition, focusing on the broader perspective of developing technologies that can contribute to humankind rather than pursuing immediate profit. It is the only research laboratory in the world to take such a long view. Of course, it is really tough for one person alone to work on the research and development of all kinds of prosthetic legs, but the work is extremely satisfying and being able to carry out research at CSL is a great pleasure.

Towards a society where technology
overcomes disabilities

My short-to-medium-term target is to perfect prosthetic legs for racing in time for the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020. In the near future, athletes wearing these artificial legs should be able to run on short-distance tracks at the same speed as athletes with no disabilities, or even faster. I believe that people will be so astonished when they see this that their opinions of disability sports and their attitudes towards the disabled will change. This research for the Paralympics should also be benefitial in developing prosthetic legs for consumers as well as in rehabilitation and assistive devices for the elderly. My target is to establish by 2020 a trend towards an industry with prosthetic legs for competitive sports at its top.

Looking further forward, I believe that the worldwide spread of the technologies born out of the Paralympics will eradicate the word "disability" itself. Technology should be able to compensate for physical disabilities. And, this research will give birth to devices that will enhance one's abilities way beyond one's own strengths irrespective of whether one has a disability or not. If the capabilities of such devices can be enhanced, the borderline between having or not having disabilities may almost disappear for disabled and non-disabled people alike. That is my vision.

The aim of Diversity & Inclusion is to view disabilities not as disabilities but as unique characteristics of the person in question, and to create a society and mechanisms that make the most of these characteristics. As a first step, I would be delighted if the technologies that I am currently developing can make a contribution towards this aim.

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