It's been 10 years since Henry Evans has been able to perform some of the simplest of tasks, like scratching his face, shaving, putting objects into a drawer. Now, with the help of a personal robot, he can.
At 40, Evans, a father of four with an MBA and a career in finance, had a brain stem stroke that left him a quadriplegic. He cannot speak, but his mind is clear as a bell and very active.
His wife Jane serves as his caregiver and translator. After intensive therapy, he is able to move his head and one finger; with the help of a tracking device he wears on his head, it's enough so that he can use a computer, moving a mouse and typing letters one by one.
One morning last fall, he was watching a TV report about a machine called PR2, or Personal Robot 2. It was developed by Willow Garage, a California research group that works on robots as assistants to human beings.
"I was lying in bed, watching TV as usual and suddenly I was staring at this wonderful robot," Evans wrote in an email to ABC News. "Almost immediately I imagined using it as a surrogate for my own worthless body. I even imagined the type of interface I would need to drive it with my headtracker.
"As soon as my wife got me up I Googled Willow Garage and learned they were nearby. I emailed them and to my surprise they responded right away and were interested. They immediately introduced me to Dr. Kemp, who was very enthusiastic. One thing led to another and here we are!"
Dr. Kemp is Charlie Kemp, the director of the Center for Health Care Robotics at Georgia Tech. He was on the news report, demonstrating how the robot, with a radio-frequency identification tag around its neck, could help elderly patients take their medication at the right time.
Robots for Humanity
Willow Garage provided the robot, free of charge (it sells for up to $400,000), to Georgia Tech and 10 other research institutions around the world. The company's goal is to accelerate research by providing a basic, state-of-the-art robot so that researchers don't have to build their own from scratch.
By January, they were hard at work. They called their project Robots for Humanity.
"Before we even got together, Henry had made a detailed layout with PowerPoint for what he'd like the interface to be like," Kemp said. "He is both very motivated and motivating."
Robots for Humanity is Evans' invention. "I actually came up with the name Robots for Humanity about 5 years ago," he wrote. Formerly a CFO of Satmetrix, a start-up, Evans says that his "interest in engineering was born of necessity, not education.
"I imagined developing technologies to help disabled people and raising money for it from people who had made money in electronics in Silicon Valley (or by getting a government grant)."
By June, the interface had been developed to the point where Evans, by moving his head and finger and using the interface, could position the robot's arm near his face so he could shave and -- for the first time in years -- scratch an itch. And he could direct the robot, from a separate room, to put objects in a drawer.
PR2 is "part of an emerging new class of robots," said Kemp. "We call them 'autonomous mobile manipulators,' a robot that can do things on its own, move around on its own, and physically manipulate things." The robot has lots of sensors so it's aware of what's around it, and its arms are less rigid than other robots'.
Researchers and Willow Garage executives caution that this technology is still in its early stages.
Paralyzed Man Gets Help From Personal Robot
"It's harder for his wife to get him out of bed than to shave him," said Steve Cousins, the CEO of Willow Garage. But being able to shave on his own "gives Henry a sense of dignity. This could be an extension of Henry's own body."
And there is the issue of safety. Evans has used the robot at Willow Garage's labs, not at home, and the robot has not been alone with him in a room.
"One of things that's really important is, How do we make this thing safe enough to be around somebody who literally can't defend himself?" said Cousins.
"Robots like those used in automobile factories now rely on the world being predictable," said Kemp. "With humans, who are less predictable, they need more intelligence. The robot needs to be softer, more compliant."
Cousins and Kemp said they hope that PR2 can be made more widely available in the next decade or so.
"We sell these for $400,000," said Cousins. "Henry is what we call an extreme user, meaning he has an extreme disability. There are a lot of people who have less disability, but still could use help. Say, if you fall down and break your ankle, you might be able to rent a robot for six weeks and have it go to the fridge for you."
Added Kemp, "Hopefully on the research side we can show this is feasible. I'm optimistic but I can't really say for certain. Let's say that if within 10 years there aren't robots out there doing things like this, I'll be disappointed."
Kemp and Evans have developed a partnership, working together both for research and practical benefit.
"We've worked with people with other physical disabilities," said Kemp. "But usually they'll come in and we'll do a study, they'll give us some good suggestions, but it's usually a short-term thing. With Henry, we're working with someone who's engaged throughout the whole process. It's exciting."
"When the robot scratched me for the first time, I remember thinking; 'the human mind can do whatever it wants,'" wrote Evans in his email. "I also remember thinking how wonderful the robot was, as well as the headtracker…. I also remember thinking, 'who said American innovation was dead?'"