I recently sat through a session on “Invention and Consequence” as part of GroundFloor Media’s participation in the 2011 TED Conference. Numerous presenters really caught my attention – not only because of their incredible minds, but also because of how they used their intelligence to impact the lives of others.
Dennis Hong is the founder and director of the Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech University. He worked to develop the technology for a car that enables a blind person to drive and unveiled the Blind Driver Challenge at this year’s Daytona 500 in January. Working with his engineering students and blind engineers from around the country, Hong developed a moving seat called a SpeedStrip that dictated the car’s speed. Gloves with small moving motors, DriveGrips, let the driver know how to steer the car. The spinoff technology can be used in the future for sighted drivers to help with fog, darkness and other challenging driving conditions.
Another speaker, Google engineer Sebastian Thrun, talked about how losing his best friend at 18 to a car accident changed his life. He and a team at Google came up with a driverless car and tested it over 140,000 miles throughout California – mountain roads, freeways and the winding, hilly streets of San Francisco. The cars are designed using artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the vehicle and simulate the decisions made by a human driver. As Thrun explained, driving accidents are the #1 cause of death in youth, mostly due to human error. Not only could this technology save countless lives, but also don’t you think it would make our highways safer if we didn’t have to rely exclusively on human decisions?
Last, the CEO of Berkley Bionics, Eythor Bender, provided a demonstration of eLEGS, “a wearable, artificially intelligent, bionic device that enables people with paralysis to stand up and walk again.” Berkley Bionics also developed the first practical exoskeleton and the Human Universal Load Carrier or HULC, allowing people to carry up to 200 pounds on their backs over various terrains and long distances. The implications for our men and women in the Armed Services are tremendous. Bender explained how up to 30 percent of American soldiers have chronic back injuries due to the weight of their packs.
I was really in awe of what I heard and saw from these men and women inventors, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
~ Barb Jones