The UW's Yoky Matsuoka is leading the quest for robotics that take orders from the brain
At the University of Washington, MacArthur "genius" award-winner Yoky Matsuoka is leading the effort to build robotic hands and other devices that will take commands directly from the human brain — and revolutionizing the opportunities for people with disabilities to function more fully.
YOKY MATSUOKA holds a pen in her right hand as if she's about to start jotting notes. Instead, with a flash of her thumb and two fingers, she sets the pen into a rapid spin. She does it again and again, conjuring the image of a helicopter blade warming for takeoff.
The movement is precise, elegantly executed and distracting to all but her. She doesn't even realize she's doing the trick she learned as a fourth-grader in Japan.
Then she offers to teach the maneuver — "anybody who sits through two weeks worth of boring lectures could master it."
A little thing, perhaps, but it is the kind of agile, instinctive movement she hopes to infuse into robotic devices. Two floors down from her Computer Science and Engineering Department office on the University of Washington campus, she has not only built an anatomically correct robotic hand, but is wading through physiology and neuroscience so she can bring it to life.
She wants to connect robotic hardware to the brain's software to help people with disabilities live fuller lives. The prosthetics and wearable devices she envisions aren't clunky, heavy grabbers. They are devices so functional, so sophisticated that even a spinal-cord patient could use them for fine motor skills, even pen-twirling.
Her audacious work earned her a 2007 MacArthur Foundation "genius award" (and no-strings-attached $500,000), increased awareness for the burgeoning field of "neurobotics" that she is pioneering and caused a wave of attention her way. She chose to ride the wave.
Consequently, Matsuoka, 37, lives an over-budgeted life, one crammed with meetings, mentoring, researching, testing and speechmaking even as she raises three small children. She usually arises at 4 a.m., sometimes "pulling all-nighters," and spends most of her drive time in phone meetings. She warns people she will be late and usually is.
Yet engineering a new robotics path doesn't seem to be enough. She insists on engineering an array of more immediate projects along her way:
. . . Leading a nonprofit company — the "YokyWorks Foundation" — that pairs women, specifically mothers who have professional backgrounds, with engineering students to produce custom devices for people with various disabilities and specific requests.
. . . Helping pull together the best and brightest from a spectrum of disciplines into a cooperative called the Northwest Center for Neural Engineering so Seattle can become neuroscience's version of Silicon Valley.
. . . Juggling book deals — one a neurobotics handbook, the other, to help turn around the trend of girls drifting away from science and math in junior high and high school.
. . . Tending to three children younger than 4 years old with the help of her husband, Microsoft engineer Simon Baker.
In fact, Matsuoka has been engineering her life from an early age. She came alone to the United States from Japan at 16 to attend the same hard-core tennis academy that produced Andre Agassi. She soon informed her parents she wanted to stay because the U.S. was where she could be herself.
Then, she promptly changed her name from Yoko to Yoky.
"I had no idea how, but I believed I was going to make a difference, somehow be famous," she says, chuckling. "I wanted to have a name no American or Japanese person had so I could be the only famous Yoky. But as time has gone by I've become more interested in finding ways to help other people become that person trying to be somebody.'"
OTHER THAN physiology equations written on a drawing board and photographs of her kids, Yoky Matsuoka's office is spare. One of the few items that merit a frame is a drawing of how she imagined the "tennis buddy," a tennis-playing robot, which laid the foundation for her work.
She began serious tennis training when she was 12. As an only child and a born achiever, she noticed how impressed her parents were with the bratty American virtuoso John McEnroe.
Each school day, Matsuoka awoke at 6 a.m. to take the train from the family's suburban Tokyo home to her rigorous all-girls school. When school ended, she ran to catch a train that took her to a tennis academy two hours away. She'd practice four hours, do homework on the train and get to bed at 11 p.m.
The regimen paid off. She was ranked 21st in Japan and competed in Wimbledon qualifying rounds.
Her parents sent her to America for what they thought would be a year to help her tennis, but also to expose her to the U.S., a country they admired. Her father had been a Fulbright scholar at New York University. They just didn't count on her arguing so forcefully, so soon, to stay.
"I went back to Japan not long ago," Matsuoka recalls, "and some of my friends said, 'You were weird when you were younger; you seemed bigger than the country. You didn't fit in.' That's sort of an insult, but I knew what they meant."
Her professional-tennis dream broke down with her body. She suffered a number of serious leg and foot injuries and turned her attention to engineering. But she couldn't completely leave tennis behind. She approached her mentors at the University of California, Berkeley, and pitched her ideas to build a robot that could play various styles and levels.
They didn't come right out and discourage her, but she soon found herself working on their robotic projects. Fascinated by the work, she went on to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in the artificial-intelligence lab of pioneering robotocist Rodney Brooks. He was developing COG, a robot with artificial intelligence. Matsuoka volunteered to build the arms and hands.
"She repeatedly surprised me by embarking on a new sub-project in an area where she had no background, and in just two or three weeks being totally up to speed and producing working systems," Brooks says. "And she did it again and again."
For Brooks, she built hands with grasping-baby reflexes. She began ruminating on big questions about how specific tasks are communicated so seamlessly from brain to limb and how a scientist can simulate that. For that matter, how do a tennis player's brain and limbs improvise so fast and adjust to an imperfect bounce?
"I got so fascinated by it," she says, "and by the people who could improve their quality of life with the help of robots, people with spinal-cord injuries, Parkinson's and other conditions."
Robotics could help disabled people relaunch their lives, she came to believe. But it needed to merge with neuroscience.
IN AWARDING HER its prize, the MacArthur Foundation said Matsuoka's work is "transforming our understanding of how the central nervous system coordinates musculoskeletal action and of how robotic technology can enhance the mobility of people with manipulation disabilities."
Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair of Computer Science at the UW, puts it more simply. He says Matsuoka is charting new territory by taking on and blending multiple disciplines such as computer science, biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering and neuroscience.
"Yoky has learned these fields; she is a one-woman interdisciplinary team," he says. "That's what's special. She's smart. She's ambitious. She's fearless. But most important she's prepared. She's full of substance, not just yap."
Part of the substance can be found inside her neurobotics lab in the form of a skeletal-looking hand attached to a thick arm of wires and cylinders. The white plastic hand consists of knobby, delicate digits and joints that are webbed with fine, surgical-strength string that serves as tendons. Those "tendons" stretch into the arm, home to a labyrinth of wires and tiny motors that represent muscles.
She calls it the Anatomically Correct Testbed robotic hand. She went to great lengths to build an artificial limb as "human" as possible because she believes mimicking our anatomy is the best way to pinpoint and map the effects of its neural commands. It's the integration of what she calls human hardware (limbs, joints etc.) with our body software (nerve signals).
Having built several hands since her graduate work at MIT, she came to believe that some critical aspects are often overlooked in the hardware. One of those aspects is the flexible palm, which she says was a byproduct of her team that mimicked bone shapes, joint structure and tendon routing in the anatomically correct hand.
The findings from this work, she says, can help improve the function of currently available prosthetic hands and ultimately lead to "seamless integration" with the nervous signals as if the prosthetic hand was part of the person's body.
An amputee still has muscles and nerve endings to which devices could be connected. But if the patient has a spinal-cord injury, those signals no longer function. That means scientists have to connect "upstream," and figure out what those signals mean.
"Our prostheses are primitive, so feeding them a lot of control signals is fruitless because they are not fully functional," says Lazowska. "But our ability to 'tap in' is very limited, too, so even if we had a fully functional prosthesis, we wouldn't be able to get it the signals necessary to control it. You need to attack all aspects of the problem. That's what Yoky and her collaborators are doing."
A few feet from the hand, six motion-capture cameras surround a single artificial finger so scientists can determine which neural signal creates what set of movements.
The work is cutting-edge, complex and perhaps three decades away from fruition, but Matsuoka says the research is spawning knowledge that may pay off in a number of fields. Her lab also tests methods of "robotic therapy" that use devices to help increase the range of motion, strength and velocity of arm movements in people with chronic stroke, traumatic brain injury and other neurological trauma.
Heady stuff for the woman who used to play the airhead.
WHEN SHE ENROLLED in a California high school, Matsuoka spent considerable time, as a budding scientist would do, observing.
"I wanted to figure out where I was going to fit in," she recalls. "I was far more perceptive about what I wanted to do before I could do it. I'd say to myself, I want to be that person and in order to be that I have to act like he or she does, use her way of talking, joining those clubs. It was an interesting way to restart your life, from an outside view and then enter it."
She decided playing "this dumb airhead person" would get her friends. It worked, but meant sneaking into the library and cramming at night so nobody cool would see her with a book. (She even played the airhead card at MIT until Brooks told her to knock it off.)
"I had great friends and boyfriends, but I do not want to sell it as a success. I was living this dual life. It was a complicated mess."
That's why she persuaded a publisher to let her write a book aimed at convincing girls they can be adept at math and science and be social, too. She wants girls to know that being smart is cool. At the same time, she learned that the social aspects of her American teen life also helped her learn about organization and leadership, which are critical to her work.
She cannot name a female mentor. She has always been comfortable admiring male achievement and figuring out how she could do it, too. But the more she mentors girls and listens to their moms, the more she understands. Since moving to the UW in 2006, she has been learning how to be a full-time scientist and mom. She was nursing her baby in the airport when someone recognized her and yelled to friends, "she's the genius." Her first reaction was to survey her shirt for signs of spit-up stains.
Bambi Brewer, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says Matsuoka mentored her as she worked toward her Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University.
"I gave birth to my son about a year before I finished graduate school, and she was very supportive," Brewer says. "She helped me work out a schedule that allowed me to finish my dissertation while spending time with my son and allowed me to bring him along to meetings when I needed to. I distinctly remember her holding my son and feeding him Cheerios while helping me practice for my dissertation defense."
By starting YokyWorks — www.yokyworks.org — she is expanding on volunteer work she has done, as time allows, for years. (She often gets pleas for help and once invented a wheelchair umbrella that could be tilted by a joystick after a student complained that rain never comes straight down.)
The nonprofit, as she sees it, will also help mothers relaunch parts of themselves they set aside to raise children. Her team includes lawyers, nurses, executives and other professionals to oversee details of the projects.
Between the inherent coolness of robots, her easygoing manner and ability to speak in layperson's terms, she is a sought-out speaker. She spends considerable time talking to schools. As she ended a recent presentation to sixth- and seventh-graders at Vista Academy in Bellevue, she asked what the students wanted to be when they grew up. The usual occupations were shouted.
"Don't forget," she said, "that you can make up your own occupation. I did."
Richard Seven is a Seattle Times staff reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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