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Yoky Matsuoka: Expert Q&A

  • Posted 07.22.08
  • NOVA scienceNOW

On July 22, 2008, Yoky Matsuoka answered selected questions about her life and the future of neurobotics.

Yoky Matsuoka

Yoky Matsuoka

Yoky Matsuoka is a leader in neurobotics and serves as an Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. Full Bio

Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Yoky Matsuoka

Yoky Matsuoka is a leader in neurobotics, which merges neuroscience with robotics and could one day allow patients to control prosthetic limbs through the same brain signals we use to move our arms and legs. She began her work on neurobotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she obtained her M.S. (1995) and Ph.D. (1998). Currently, Matsuoka runs the Neurobotics Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she also serves as an Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering. Her current research includes the study of how virtual environments can be used to encourage stroke victims to push beyond their perceived limitations in motion and strength, enhancing the rehabilitation process. A 2007 MacArthur Fellow, Matsuoka has received numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the American government upon up-and-coming scientists.

Q: How close are you to needing a human subject for your research? Rob Taylor, Ormond Beach, Florida

Yoky Matsuoka: Dear Rob,
It will take a long time for the anatomically correct testbed to become a fully functional prosthetic device controlled naturally by the brain. However, it is possible that the discoveries we make along the way will lead to innovative technologies that hopefully could be integrated into other prosthetic systems available in the nearer future.

Q: Could your robotic technology eventually help people like my daughter, who was born without her right hand? Jim, Ephrata, Pennsylvania

Matsuoka: Dear Jim,
Definitely. She would be a great candidate.

Q: I have a friend who lost both his hands this past 4th of July holiday from a fireworks accident. Would someone like him, who had full use of his hands before the accident, be a better candidate than someone who never had use of his hands? Bob Steele, Cincinnati, Ohio

Matsuoka: Dear Bob,
In the future, yes. Eventually, people who just lost their limbs could be fitted immediately surgically with a new pair of hands, which would be controlled by the same brain signals that controlled their real hands.

Q: I'm 56 and had polio as an infant, which has left me unable to use some of my limbs. With regard to how the brain controls the device you're working on, could your hand work for someone with damage to his central nervous system? If so, how? Brad Canfield, Roeland Park, Kansas

Matsuoka: Dear Brad,
That's the goal. The fact that you could type this question shows me that your central nervous system can express your intention. This level of "intent" is what we hope to gather from the brain and use it to control the prosthetic device.

Q: Can you comment on when you see a breakthrough in motor (or actuator) technology that would allow someone to use your bionic arm? It seems like current technology still requires bulky gearboxes, motors, and power supplies that are difficult to miniaturize into a true "un-tethered" arm. Mike McCollum, Buellton, California

Matsuoka: Dear Mike,
It is indeed true that actuators are bulky. We experimented with other lighter and more biologically inspired actuators, but their performance wasn't good enough for real human-like movements. For now, I am building a system that is focused on uncovering the human function, so an electric motor is the right choice. Many people are doing research on alternative actuator systems, so hopefully they will experience breakthroughs soon.

Q: Why doesn't your research focus on the nerves and signals in the proximity of the limb? It seems to me that decoding and understanding the signals entering the arm around the shoulder would be easier to isolate and translate than those from the brain. Mike Vealey, Phoenix, Maryland

Matsuoka: Dear Mike,
We work with all signals, including those at the peripheral nerves. However, ultimately, in order for our system to work for people with spinal cord damage, or severe peripheral loss, we must be able to get signals from higher up in the nervous system.

Q: Rather than or in addition to brain signals, have you thought about using piezoelectric technology, where a change in electrical current causes bending (such as in a finger)? Frank, Coral Springs, Florida

Matsuoka: Dear Frank,
Good question. Piezoelectric actuators are systems that change their shape when electrical current passes through them. This technology is used for many advanced actuators, and the progress in this field is exciting. But one of the shortfalls of these actuators is the total amount of displacement that is possible. This means that at this point, we wouldn't be able to get accurate physical movements with these systems.

Q: Since you injured your ankle, I am surprised that you didn't focus on that instead of the hand in your research. Do you know of anyone who has focused on the foot and has made as much progress as you in bionic development? Kate Burk, Umatilla, Florida

Matsuoka: Dear Kate,
Actually, one of the very first things I did in college was focus on the legs. I joined a lab that was building robotic legs before I went on to MIT for graduate study. The field of lower limb prosthetics is far more advanced than the field of upper limb prosthetics. In fact, there are many commercially available legs that allow users to run.

Q: Was living a double life worthwhile during high school and college? And as you look back, was it important to have lots of friends? I don't have many friends, but I'm smart and, like you, I also wish to stand out. What advice do you have for someone like me? Anonymous

Matsuoka: Hi,
Since I didn't experience the other alternative, I do not know what would have happened if I didn't act like an airhead. Maybe I would have had the same friends and would have had as much fun. Living a double life is not a good thing to do as it requires a lot of energy. (And I think by pretending to be dumb, I did become a bit dumber.) If I were to do it again, I would not go the extremes that I did, and I can't recommend them to anyone else.

Q: How could you have wanted to be an "airhead"? Your knowledge and accomplishments leave me, a male, in total astonishment. Tim, Charleston, South Carolina

Matsuoka: Dear Tim,
Well, thank you! As adults, we place value in our knowledge and accomplishments. But as teenagers under high social pressure, it is not easy to understand that. Unfortunately, there is a general trend that girls are viewed as "more attractive" if they spend more time trying to look good rather than studying. The funny part is that the opposite trend is also true: In a professional environment where being smart is viewed as a good thing, if a woman is dressed to kill, people will assume that her intellectual contribution must be minimal.

Q: Other than watching "Friends," how else did you have to adjust to American life? What were some of the biggest cultural differences between America and Japan? Nic Brinza, Plymouth, Minnesota

Matsuoka: Dear Nic,
In Japan, for a woman, not being outspoken is viewed as a positive thing. I noticed that in the U.S., if I didn't speak out for what I wanted, I was left behind. What I found interesting is that I formed two different personalities: When I speak Japanese, I go right back to not being able to articulate or speak out, and I sound more feminine. But if I need to argue or articulate things, I have to do it in English.

Q: My eight-year-old grandson loves his Lego robotics software and his MacBook. Any tips for him in his pursuits? His mom is a teacher and is home-schooling him, so we're looking for resources and good ideas. Tom King, Minnesota

Matsuoka: Dear Tom,
My kids are still younger than three years old, so I am not an expert parent yet. But the things I love now are the things that I was presented with growing up, but never pushed to do. It seems like your grandson's passion is aligned with someone who may become an engineer. My recommendation would be to find local programs or camps that he could join to design, build, and test different materials under his own initiatives.

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