High-tech robotics change disabled children's lives

Yoky Matsuoka (left) and 8th-grader Olivia Pineda demonstrate Matsuoka's anatomically correct robotic hand, designed to integrate directly with the human body and brain.

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Kai Ryssdal: In all the gift-giving that's going to happen this weekend, there are going to some great presents. Exciting, amazing, heartfelt gifts. Probably not too many, though, that'll change somebody's life. But a robotics workshop in Seattle has taken the holiday tradition and given it a high-tech twist.

Marketplace's Steve Henn explains.


Steve Henn: You know in the movie "The Terminator"? Arnold Schwarzenegger has this robotic hand. Yoky Matsuoka built a real one. It's a fully articulated robotic hand that she thinks one day could respond to human nerve signals. Yoky's a pioneer in the field of neurorobotics and that hand made Yoky kinda famous.

A few years ago she started getting e-mails from parents of disabled kids asking if their were things she build to help them.

Yoky Matsuoka: Most of the time I couldn't do anything. But sometimes, there were things I could do almost on the side as a hobby to build something for them.

Once, she built all-terrain crutches. Then Yoky won the MacArthur Genius award. It came with a half a million dollars in prize money. Yoky used some of the cash to launch a nonprofit called YokyWorks, that asks disabled kids this question:

Matsuoka: If your Santa Claus was an engineer, what would you like for your next Christmas?

Then YokyWorks tries to build what they ask for. And some the contraptions it comes up with can be life changing.

Beth McCarthy: I heard Yoky speak at a conference that took place at Seattle Children's hospital.

Beth McCarthy is a physical therapist. She had been helping to care for a little girl named Maria Ortiz-Bautista since Maria was four months old. Maria has severe cerebral palsy. She's locked inside a body that doesn't do what she asks it to.

McCarthy: To someone who doesn't know her, she has almost no understandable verbal speech.

Maria can say "yes" or "no," but she can't initiate any kind of conversation. She can't walk, She can't use traditional buttons or joysticks. If she's thirsty, she has to wait until someone asks her if she'd like a drink. She has no way to express her own ideas or desires or needs. Still, Beth and Maria's parents have been convinced for years that there is this bright, engaging little kid trapped inside.

McCarthy: She smiled, she laughed. She understands a lot of language. She understands Spanish and English. If I try to speak Spanish to her -- which I am not a Spanish speaker, my Spanish is terrible -- she will laugh at me.

McCarthy talking to Maria, Maria laughing

A year ago, YokyWorks launched the Maria Project. Step one: Build a machine Maria can use on her own, to communicate.

Gerry Chu: You can just imagine she's in a very hard situation.

Gerry Chu is one of the engineers on the project.

Chu: I kind of think of her like those people who are paralyzed and have locked-in syndrome where they have all these things going around in their head but they can't really communicate them.

Eventually, Gerry pieced together a gadget using an old Toys R' Us electric drum set and a lap top. It has four big buttons that are far enough part that Maria can hit them accurately.

McCarthy: Right now, it gives her the opportunity to spontaneously say, "I'm thirsty, I want some water." And this button means "I want to watch a movie."

She can tell people she's hungry or needs to go to the bathroom. Her dad, Hector Ortiz says the device has already changed their lives.

Hector Ortiz speaking in Spanish

He can see that Maria's learning. And the next step is to teach Maria to use this device to make letters.

Matsuoka: It would be great if she can get to a point that she could basically have a keyboard that she can control on her own.

Then they'll teach her to write.

McCarthy: What we are hoping to do is to give her a means so that she will be able to spontaneously produce her own speech, what she wants to say.

And eventually explore the world.

Matsuoka: Go to college, get a job -- you know, all those things that would completely enable her in different ways than the current path that she's on.

And even though the device YokyWorks created was designed only with Maria in mind, Yoky hopes some of the technologies will have commercial uses. If they do, that intellectual property YokyWorks created could help fund the workshop for years.

In Silicon Valley, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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