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Democratizing technology and the road to empowerment

BIF9 storytellers share how their work and experiences enrich our world.

Advancements in technology are making what once was relegated only to highly educated scientists, engineers and developers accessible to — and affordable for — the mainstream. This democratization of technology and the empowerment it affords was an underlying thread through many of the stories at this year’s Business Innovation Factory (BIF) summit. From allowing hobbyists and makers to innovate and develop on an advanced level to enabling individuals to take control of their personal health data to using space suits to help children with cerebral palsy, technological advancements are beginning to empower — and enrich — at scale.

With the rise of quantified self, for example, people have begun amassing personal data based on their activities and behaviors. Some argue that QS doesn’t go quite far enough and that a more complete story can be told by incorporating emotional data, our sense of experience. While it’s empowering in many ways to be able to collect and control all this personal big data, what to do with this onslaught of information and how to process it remains a question for many.

Alexander Tsiaras, who founded theVisualMD, argued in his talk at BIF9 that “story gives a soul to the data,” and that it’s time to change the paradigm, to start using technology to create ecosystems to empower people to understand what’s going on inside their bodies as a result of their behaviors.

Using visualization and interactive media, personal big data — medical records, test results, lab reports, diagnoses, and exercise and eating habits, for instance — are deconstructed, as Tsiaras explained, to “demystify” the data: “The beauty of visualization is that it speaks to everyone,” he said. From stories to explain test results to stories to help patients visualize the processes going on inside their bodies when they eat particular foods or when they exercise, people are able to turn their personal big data into stories, whether to better understand a chronic condition or to understand how their behaviors play into prevention. “This is the most important thing,” Tsiaras argued, “the moment you take control, that empowerment is huge.”

Arguably, one of the most democratizing and empowering of technological innovations is 3D printing — innovators can now manufacture the products they conceive, even at scale. BIF storyteller Ping Fu emphasized the potential of the technology through a powerful personal story of how her past experiences led her to computer science — a breakthrough, she explained, that changed her life personally and professionally, leading her to co-found 3D printing and design company Geomagic. Fu defined innovation as “imagination applied” and shared examples of innovations in 3D printing, including the Smithsonian’s plan to scan and print artifacts from its collection (which can now be achieved by individuals at home), custom prosthetics designed as mirror images of actual limbs, and the digital preservation of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Fu stressed that the technology should not be viewed as a platform for printing tchotchkes, that real-world, useful products are being produced.

This argument was further supported by storyteller Easton LaChapelle, a 17-year-old high school student who has used 3D printing technology in coordination with advancements in (and some creativity with) engineering materials to create a robotic hand that’s wirelessly controlled by a robotic glove — complete with haptic feedback — and a 3D-printed brain-wave-controlled robotic arm.

Affordable access to 3D printing, LaChapelle said, was key to his ability to move forward with his designs, and he noted that 3D printing is a driving force for innovation: “I can design something in my room and hit print, and within an hour, it’s in front of me; that alone is really fascinating, that you’re able to design something and have it physically in front of you; it’s remarkable in today’s world — it’s a whole evolving technology.”

Advancements in technology aren’t only empowering LaChapelle to create innovative designs in robotics; they’re empowering him to help humanity, and in turn, empowering humanity. He explained during his story:

“When I was at the science fair in Colorado, I had the first generation of the arm there for a public viewing, and a 7-year-old girl came up to me. She had a prosthetic limb from the elbow to the fingertip, with one motion — open-close — and one sensor. That alone was $80,000. That was really the moment that touched my heart, the “ah-ha” moment, that I could take what I’m already doing, transfer it directly to prosthetics, and potentially make people’s lives better.”

The final iteration of the arm is completely 3D printed, making it lightweight — from fingertip to shoulder, it’s in line to weigh less than five pounds — and cost about $400 to produce. “The third generation arm is the final [iteration of the arm] and the point where it can change people’s lives,” said LaChapelle. He’s currently working on developing exoskeleton legs for a friend who was paralyzed in a car accident, technology that he’ll make available to anyone with paralysis, MS or any other condition that impairs movement: “I want to solve this. My approach is to give them something they can afford and something they can use easily.”

You can watch LaChapelle’s inspiring talk in the following video:

In a similar vein, storyteller Dava Newman, professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT, explained how her team uses advances in materials technology to develop exoskeleton space suits to address particular issues astronauts experience in space, such as combating bone density loss, and increasing mobility and flexibility (see the gravity loading countermeasure suit, which is also used to help children with cerebral palsy perform daily activities).

Suits are also designed with high-precision EGain sensors to help provide muscular protection and measure hot spots and pressure while astronauts are training, in hopes of preventing shoulder injuries, for instance. The ultimate goal is developing the BioSuit, which uses electrospun materials, dielectric elastomers and shape memory alloys to provide a skin-tight, pressurized but flexible suit environment for astronauts. Newman stressed that the importance of our work as scientists, designers, researchers, artists, mathematicians, etc., is to take care of one another:

“…200 miles, 400 kilometers — Boston to New York — that’s where we’re living in space now; it’s low Earth orbit, and it’s fantastic and it’s great, but it’s been 40 years since we’ve been to another planetary body. I think, with all my great students and all the great dreamers in the world, we’ll get to the Moon, we’ll get to Mars, and we’re going for the search of life. It’ll be humans and rovers and robots all working together. The scientific benefit will be great, but the most important thing is that we learn about ourselves — it’s in the reflection and thinking about who we are and who humanity is.”

As technology advances and empowers more and more people to create, build and produce more and more innovative products and experiences, a discussion has begun as to the responsibility we have as engineers, scientists, designers, etc., to consider the implications and ramifications of our work, to using our designs for the benefit of humanity, to further social progress in a positive direction. It’s clear through these and other storytellers from BIF9 that doing so results in a more enriching, empowering experience for everyone.

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