Yoshiyuki Sankai, the founder, president and CEO of the cyborg-tech maker Cyberdyne, has dedicated his life to shaping the future. The businessman and professor at the Graduate School of Systems and Information Engineering at the University of Tsukuba has developed the world’s first cyborg-type robot, an exoskeletal robot suit called HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) that interprets signals sent from the wearer’s brain to move his or her body, enabling people with mobility problems and paralysis to gain independence. The use of HAL may also help the patient improve various physical functions as the nervous system are reinforced. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared HAL for use by clinics and medical centers in treating patients with spinal cord injuries, and in 2018 the Brooks rehab center in Jacksonville became the first facility to offer such treatments in the U.S.
HAL is a groundbreaking new technology. How does it work?
When a person moves their body, their brain transmits signals to muscles necessary for the movement through nerves. In a healthy body, each muscle is able to receive signals originating from the brain and move as strongly and as fast as intended. However, for people with diseases or injuries, the signals originating from the brain are either too weak or too unstable by the time it reaches the muscles to initiate the proper movement. Signals sent to muscles by the brain trickle onto the skin surface as very faint signals, so-called “bio-electrical signals [BES].” HAL is able to read BES by applying its originally developed sensors on the surface of the wearer’s skin. After processing this BES with other types of information from various sources, HAL calculates the sort of motions the wearer intends to make. HAL controls its power units based on its calculations and enables the wearer‘s to realize their intended motions. The mechanism to move the human body is not meant to only affect the muscles. When HAL has appropriately assisted the motion of walking, sensory information of the movement is fed back to the brain, allowing it to recognize what type of signals led to the completion of the intended movement. Through this loop of generating intentional motion and the subsequent feedback to the brain, the connection of the nervous system is gradually reinforced/coordinated. This leads to the important first step toward walking without HAL’s assistance.
What is the significance of HAL as a new technology?
A normal robot is controlled by computers and repeats simple actions. This is not a robot, although, of course, it includes robotic technology. HAL is controlled by the human brain and bioelectrical signals. The brain has so many neurons that, when there is a problem in the brain, they try to find a new path. It is like when beginners or young students participate in a project, and at first, they cannot follow the concepts fully and find solutions. If they continually try to understand and find answers, they will eventually find a path that works and try to repeat that. The brain is very similar. When the brain loses a function, the brain tries to find new solutions. Nerves in the brain and spinal cord do not rapidly regenerate like, say, skin cells, but they do always try to make connections. This device tries to support these connections between nerves. I believe that the movement from the device may reinforce the dormant nervous system, and once a useful path is established, synaptic connections may gradually increase. It may even be possible for the brain to recover from states of partial paralysis. By 2050, 40 percent of Japanese people will be over 65 years old, and other developed countries will face similar situations. The technology in this device may be the key to keeping them healthy and active in society. We need to be wary of this threat and prepare solutions for this urgent situation.
How great are the challenges in terms of marketing your products?
First, we made a prototype, but to develop it as a medical device, we had to prepare for medical regulations, proving its efficacy and safety, and so on. This is a very difficult process, but I believed it would have a strong impact in the future, perhaps for the next generation. I started these challenges in Japan and in Europe, creating the devices in Japan and developing them further with European partners. This all helped to prepare a solid foundation before entering the U.S. market. If I had started in the U.S., it could have been more difficult as speed is very important there. Fortunately due to these efforts, in 2017, we received marketing clearance from the FDA, and so we can say that the preparation phase is finished. The U.S. is a very important country in the medical field, representing 40 percent of the world market of expenditure on medical devices, and therefore we decided to work in Florida with the Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital. We created a joint company with them called Cyberdyne and Brooks Inc. and will work together to establish treatment centers featuring HAL. We are now trying to find a manager in the U.S. to help accelerate the business side of that partnership. We also collaborate with the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle, as another way to advance research in the US. These medical studies are very important in order to build strong relationships with medical partners.
Is the U.S. the most important market for Cyberdyne at present?
Yes, I spent a long time preparing this device knowing that the medical field has such high hurdles to overcome. These high standards are the reason why the U.S. regulations, along with European and Japanese regulations, are trusted worldwide. If I had started by dealing with the regulations in all Asian countries, I would have lost focus in the myriad of conflicting regulatory requirements. However, because I focused on the U.S., Europe and Japan and received clearances there, we should be able to enter other markets more efficiently. In Japan, it can be used for very serious mobility problems, stemming from progressive conditions such as spinal muscular atrophy and muscular dystrophy. In the U.S. we have it cleared for spinal cord problems. In 2019, we are challenging ourselves to meet the goal of receiving clearance so that the device can be used with stroke patients. I am also preparing to present the technology at the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Trade and Digital Economy in Tsukuba in June. I am thinking about the context of smart cities, and I would like to present our latest device.
What do you say to people who are worried about the rise of robotic technology and AI and the possible consequences for human society?
We are homo sapiens. Homo sapiens have been changing society with technology. The hunter-gatherer society became an agrarian society, then industrial and now we are in the information society. So, what is next? The world has become smaller and smaller, and we need to consider a suitable future with new technology. I believe that technology should work for human society in a way that makes us happier, not for negative purposes that can harm other humans like increasing the lethality of killing machines. Unfortunately, in the military field, robotic technology and AI are all too commonly considered for use, and it will be up to us humans to think deeply about where to draw the line when developing technology that can both advance the human race to its next stage or end it entirely. When I established Cyberdyne, we drew up rule books to ensure an ethical approach. The first rule that must always be considered is that we are preparing these technologies for peaceful purposes. We have two ethical committees: one is concerned with normal medical issues, which is a necessity for any company that works in healthcare; the other is a peace-ethical committee to ensure that the technology is not only beneficial but also appropriate for use in society. Thanks to advances in information technology and communications, we can supervise the use of our devices, wherever they are. Furthermore, in the industrial field and the medical field, there are strict regulations that control the use of any device or equipment. However, when the military gets involved, there is too much secrecy and these questions would be beyond our control. This is why we have chosen not to develop our technology with any military group.
What is the final message you would like to send to an American audience?
I love challenges. Please join us in our efforts to create the future. Ethical and philosophical issues are very important for humanity, and in today’s small world, I am encouraged that young people are increasingly more inclined to consider these things and think about the future. And data shows that this future will involve an increasing number of older members in the global village, so we really must also problem solve for the way they are going to live.