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Creative technology meets quiet humanity in Media Lab's adaptive device event

Mission is 'hacking the human,' says director Frank Moss
Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks gave the keynote speech at an MIT Media Lab conference on May 9 that examined the scope of human ability. Sacks gave vivid examples of the brain's amazing adaptability. <a onclick="MM_openBrWindow('h20-sacks-enlarged.html','','width=509, height=583')">
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Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks gave the keynote speech at an MIT Media Lab conference on May 9 that examined the scope of human ability. Sacks gave vivid examples of the brain's amazing adaptability. <a onclick="MM_openBrWindow('h20-sacks-enlarged.html','','width=509, height=583')">
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Forget cool new gadgets or killer-ap software. "We're hacking the human," said Frank Moss, director of MIT's Media Lab, in introducing "H2.0: New Minds, New Bodies, New Identities," the lab's May 9 symposium that showed -- often in mind-blowing detail -- how addressing the challenges posed by disabilities can broaden the scope of human ability.

"The goal of today's symposium is to demonstrate the amazing possibilities in new adaptive technology," as MIT President Susan Hockfield noted.

But "amazing" came with a sense of humor, as provided by MIT Media Lab Distinguished Fellow and veteran TV journalist John Hockenberry, who acted as master of ceremonies and got things rolling by showing off the sparkling lights on his wheelchair.

And tales of the "amazing" were tempered by the quiet humanity of author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, the keynote speaker, who mesmerized his audience with stories of the brain's adaptability.

Hockenberry set the tone by bringing on stage a telephone and a typewriter (which he defined as a "laptop that prints while you type.") The typewriter, he noted, was invented to let the blind write, and telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell was seeking ways to help the deaf.

What if, he asked, new technology was about more than creating new devices to "dump" on the population? What if it involved thinking about "human mechanisms and abilities?"

"Who knows about that? People with disabilities," Hockenberry said. They "know about that intimate relationship with technology. In a sense, people with disabilities are first adopters of this extreme collaborative quality that's going to define technology in the 21st century."

The 73-year-old Sacks, the author of "Awakenings" (which became a movie starring Robin Williams) and the seminal "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," took the stage, the very picture of vitality in black sneakers, black pants and a black T-shirt, his large dome of a head matched by a snowy beard. Yet he acknowledged he has some retinal problems and is keenly interested in new eye research.

Speaking diffidently, in the self-effacing style of a bookish don, Sacks described how Parkinson's patients, frozen into human statues, could be led into dancing and singing with the right stimuli. Perhaps, he speculated, the Media Lab will come up with a device that will provide the right stimulation. But "the most wonderful power resides in music," he said. Music "will facilitate movement and action in a Parkinsonian as nothing can."

Sacks also spoke of "phantom limbs," a phenomenon in which amputees retain sensation in missing limbs. Once thought to be a "nostalgic construct like the memory of departed parents," such sensations represent the brain's ability to map out senses and motor skills, Sacks said. A famous pianist who lost his right arm could still create fingering on a new piece for students.

Citing 19th-century doctor Silas Weir Mitchell, who identified the phenomenon in the Civil War, Sacks noted, "A phantom is longing, as it were, to be re-embodied."

South African poet David Wright lost his hearing at age 9, but he didn't realize he was deaf because he would continue to hear phantom voices, Sacks said. "If they turned away, he couldn't hear them." In the blind, the sensory cortex of the brain becomes hypersensitive, producing experience or images that are "quasi visual," something the rest of us cannot imagine, he said.

Sacks turned from natural to artificial adaptations, describing how a grid of electrodes can be placed on the tongues of the blind and connected to a video camera.

"This sounds absurd, if not obscene, but in fact people who have this can not only rapidly learn to interpret it and derive information, but they can start to experience it as if visual. You don't have to have eyes to have a visual experience."

But "one needs some caution in this brave new world." Sacks also told of "Virgil," a congenitally blind man, contented with his life, who was talked into an operation that would restore his sight. When the bandages were taken off, there was "a long confused silence." The shifting mass of colors and textures meant nothing to him and only worsened his disabilities. Virgil "was never able to make sense of the visual world," Sacks said. "You have to learn to see."

Other speakers described MIT research initiatives for augmenting mental and physical capabilities to improve human life. Many gave deeply personal accounts. Writer Michael Chorost ("Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human") explained -- and showed -- what he could hear with his cochlear implant. Deb Roy, AT&T Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, who is videotaping every waking moment in his home, demonstrated ways to cull specific information from the "ultra dense" data of recording, including his son's vocal progress from saying "ga-ga" to "water."

During a talk by Hugh Herr, NEC Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, about breakthroughs in building adaptive gait prostheses, Herr reached down and rolled up his pants leg to show the latest prototype, adding that he often forgets to mention he is an amputee himself. "This is the strongest ankle in the world -- when I walk up steps it pushes me up," he said, provoking an Arnold Schwartzenegger imitation from Hockenberry. (Herr lost his legs in a climbing accident as a teenager.)

Another symposium high point came when Aimee Mullins, a Paralympic athlete and model, strutted on stage with her prosthetic legs tucked into four-inch stiletto heels. Not only does she compete in sports events, often on unusual, curved "cheetah legs," Mullins, a stunning, slender blonde, has modeled her "legs" as fashion accessories. "People say I have no legs, but, in fact, I have 10 pairs," she remarked.

Rosalind Picard, professor of media arts and sciences, demonstrated software that recognizes human emotions (which may help those with autism), while Cynthia Breazeal, LG Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, introduced the robot Leonardo, which can work through classic "false belief" scenarios.

William J. Mitchell, MIT Design Laboratory director, showed designs for folding electric cars that address both air quality and parking issues. Other experts outlined differing ways to approach neural disorders, from "back entrances" via the nervous system to direct brain interfaces.

The symposium also was punctuated by short films in which Hockenberry -- in deadpan, Stephen Colbert fashion -- visits various MIT luminaries to demand an "upgrade." The clips showed images of MIT's research from robots to voting screens to spray-on clothing.

Famed architect and designer Michael Graves, who suffered a mysterious illness in 2003 that paralyzed his legs, discussed new home product designs, such as adjustable tub rails, easy-grip shower heads and reversible walker/wheelchairs -- all increasingly attractive to an aging baby boomer population, as well as the disabled. "This is a business opportunity," Hockenberry noted. Indeed, "There are things that are simple to do and they don't cost more; you just have to use your mind and your convictions," Graves said.

Receiving a standing ovation was a performance of "My Eagle Song," by Dan Ellsey, who has cerebral palsy, on a computer designed by Tod Machover and Adam Boulanger that allows him to both compose and play.

The symposium ended with a flourish as Herr nimbly scaled a climbing wall erected on stage (he said he had been told he would never climb again) and Hockenberry showed off his "upgrade," a "hacked" Segway wheelchair.

"You see how we're changed. How have you changed?" he asked the audience.

To see the archived webcast of "H2.0: New Minds, New Bodies, New Identities," go to

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 16, 2007 (download PDF).

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