The power of human technology

December 28, 2012

By Pichi Chuang

When I first saw Yan Ching-hong, I was amazed how he could surf the internet, interact with friends on Facebook and even play video games on a computer just like any other 32-year-old.

Yan is paralyzed from the neck down, seemingly ruling out any of the kind of activities most of us take for granted. When I walked in, he was updating his Facebook status to “Busy. You can never imagine who’s interviewing me now.”

Yan has been confined to his bed since damaging his spine jumping into a swimming pool 14 years ago. He spent three months in intensive care and needs the help of a tube to breathe for the rest of his life. In his depression, Yan once suggested ways for his mother to end his life.

But things changed dramatically when he was introduced to a project by Professor Luo Ching-hsing of the Center of Advanced Biomedical Systems, Department of Electrical Engineering at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University.

Luo had invented a device shaped like a baby’s pacifier that allows paralyzed patients to type on a keyboard with Morse code. With simple long and short presses, the switch translates the 26 letters of the alphabet, all of the computer function keys, and can even be used as a mouse. The current version of the switch has been modified to the size of a USB drive and is even more accurate in distinguishing long and short signals, compared to the first version 10 years ago.

It took about two months for Yan to master the system. But once he had, he was able to enjoy himself with his computer and other appliances, very much like anyone without physical limitations. He could turn on the TV and choose programs, or control the air conditioner or heater. He could freely control any appliances connected to the switches.

Professor Luo’s invention has transformed Yan’s life. He has changed from a person who wanted, but was unable, to end his life. He now has a paid job contributing to the project by recording how he’s doing on a daily basis. Not to mention that his typing speed is now up to 50 words per minute. The device not only improved the quality of his life, but also freed the soul trapped in the paralyzed body.

“When I first became paralyzed, I thought life was meaningless. But I am happy to be the professor’s ‘lab rat’ to test these devices, because I know I still have the ability to do things, and to contribute,” said Yan, his eyes sparkling. “It gave color back to my life that used to be black and white.”

There are more examples of the way technology is starting to extend the human body’s limits. Another team at National Cheng Kung University has invented a “smart shoe” — a small bag containing microchips that sense movement, which can be strapped on to sneakers. It allows wearers to monitor dance moves as well as calories burned from workouts when used with hand-held devices such as tablet computers and smartphones.

The idea of attaching movement sensors to a wearable item can soon be applied to other applications, for example sending a warning alarm to a hospital when an elderly person falls down at home alone.

Another research project at the Southern Taiwan University of Science and Technology focuses on using brain waves. Scientists have managed to harness brain waves to maneuver an inflated balloon in the shape of a clownfish around in the air. This technology could one day assist people who are unable to use even the mouth-based device that has made life so much better for Yan Ching-hong.

We are only at the beginning of this new technological revolution.

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