NIPPONIA No. 38 September 15, 2006


HAL, a friend for people with disabilities

We began developing HAL around 1992, starting with basic research into nervous systems. At the time, our aim was to learn how to detect and use bioelectric signals coming from the nervous system. By 1995 we had made a basic experimental device, which we gradually improved into a HAL prototype by 1997. HAL-2, HAL-3 and HAL-5 followed, each an improvement on the one before. In 2005, next-generation robotics and cybernics (the field I head at the University of Tsukuba) was chosen as a priority academic discipline for our Graduate School of Systems and Information Engineering. Today, many research labs participate in our R&D projects.

HAL is getting plenty of attention from specialists in different fields, but I must admit that not all of them agree with my belief that human beings are now evolving not biologically but technologically. I suppose most of them assume that HAL's potential lies in its ability to act as an assistive device for people with disabilities or those providing medical care.

When we first began developing HAL, we wanted it to be useful not only for physically fit individuals but also for people with disabilities, especially those partially paralyzed by a stroke or by spinal injuries caused by a car accident. We wanted to develop a system that could gradually increase the physical performance of an individual's body, beginning with whatever his or her physical capabilities might happen to be. We were not aiming for a one-type-for-all device, but for a mechanism that could be adapted to a specific individual's needs.

The HAL robot suit can help people who have physical disabilities, or who are doing heavy physical labor. It could also be used, for example, in rescue operations.

HAL is attracting attention also from doctors and physiotherapists who want to know more about how the body moves, in order to develop more useful rehabilitation exercises. They can get some of this information by studying the muscular forces exerted by someone wearing HAL. They hope that HAL will accelerate patient rehabilitation, help people with disabilities live independent lives, and offer support to caregivers.

At 48, Professor Sankai Yoshiyuki is so busy he gets a proper night's sleep only a few times a year. "To develop a new field you need to be driven by passion and hope. Research is very time-consuming, but it's never a chore."

(Photo: Sakai Nobuhiko)

Bionic robot development

We wanted to develop HAL into a truly useful robot, but this requires funds that can only come from a commercial venture. We knew that our research and development must yield results that convince the end user of the benefits of our original basic research, and take HAL to a more advanced level.

Several hundred people from large corporations in Japan and abroad have contacted us, come to see demonstrations, or visited to learn more. We have also received many requests from organizations for the physically disabled, and from individuals eager to buy HAL or at least use it. But HAL is an entirely new robotic system still not covered by customary rules of use or legislation, so no company has stepped forward to take it to the commercial level.

So we decided to establish our own commercial venture within our university. At the time, this was a policy innovation for the university setting in Japan. We founded our venture, CYBERDYNE Inc., in June 2004. It now has the wind in its sails, aiming to become a world-class company by obtaining results from basic research as quickly as possible and demonstrating these results to as many people as possible.

Cybernics can be used to assist the human body, not only through use of an exoskeleton like HAL. Cybernics includes a treasure trove of technologically innovative ideas, and many of those ideas can become reality after more research and development. Just one example is the artificial human heart.

In closing, I want to stress once again how important it is that robotics not be used for military purposes. When I was a young boy I read I, Robot by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. His book made me want to develop robots when I grew up! The novel presents three laws of robotics, the first of which is "A robot must not injure a human being." Technology should be used to increase our security and protect people. Any use of robotic technology for a military goal would be truly regrettable. Scientists and researchers should, from the moment they begin basic research, establish a plan of operations and safeguards that make sure that the technology they develop is not used to harm people. An ethical code based on this vision and ideal is truly important.

I remember writing, when I was an elementary school student, "If science is used for something harmful, it is a truly frightening thing." I still believe that.