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Iron Man vs. Iraq Superhero

October 17 2008 | by

I’ve often argued that people with physical disabilities are functionally more ‘interesting’ human beings because they’ve incorporated machines into their brains and bodies. For those of you who haven’t already seen Iron Man, the superhero escapes from a cave in Afghanistan in part by building a pair of robotic legs. This sci-fi movie is more grounded in reality than it appears. Earlier this month, researchers at a university in Japan unveiled a robotic suit that reads brain signals and helps disabled people walk. The suit, known as HAL — short for “hybrid assistive limb” — is available to rent in Japan for $2,200 a month. (Cost to buy will be around $15,000-$20,000). This invention will have far-reaching benefits for the disabled as well as the elderly, giving them the “potential to lift up to 10-times the weight they normally could.” Other researchers around the world, including those at MIT, are working on similar robotic suits that increase mobility and lighten the burden for soldiers and others who carry heavy packs and equipment. Which brings me to my point. Today I watched a video of Army Sgt. Erik Schei, who was shot in the head in 2005 while serving in Iraq and given zero chance of survival. Schei is now 23 years old and uses a wheelchair. He can’t stand by himself. He can’t feed himself. But with the help of a computer that he activates with his head, he spoke in an ad on behalf of Tom Udall, a Democrat running for the Senate in New Mexico. To compose his ad, Sgt. Schei used hardware — a computer screen attached to his wheelchair — and software, such as an on-screen keyboard and perhaps a word-prediction program. He also used a text-to-speech (TTS) synthesizer to ‘deliver’ the ad for him. I noticed that his TTS program doesn’t offer the best-quality speech — some advanced programs on the market have very human-like intonation, such as the AT&T Natural Voices, or the voice-over programs built into Windows XP and Mac OS X Leopard. But Sgt. Schei is just getting his bearings; he can always upgrade to better programs, even ones that include fully functioning PCs so he can surf the web and check email. I also mentioned that he activates the computer with his head. This doesn’t show in the ad, but it’s likely that he uses a wireless optical sensor which tracks a tiny, paper-thin sticker placed on his glasses or his forehead. It connects to a USB port and works just like a computer mouse, with the mouse pointer being moved by the motion of his head. He also seems to have a microphone near his mouth, which he may use for executing computer commands using vocal chords, or maybe for practicing his speech and synthesizing it to the computer for clarity. Sgt. Schei is telling viewers that he appreciates Congressman Udall’s push in support of the U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans’ Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act of 2007 which became Public Law 110-28. It included $600 million in funding for post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Maybe when Sgt. Erik Schei gets stronger, he can run for Congress, too.

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