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Interview: The Makers of a Robotic Hand That Can ‘Feel’

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Human engineering is often seen as the pinnacle for technological achievement, be it the wheel, the steam engine or the space rocket. Human-engineering has also come a long way, especially in recent times. While the reality of fiction such as RoboCop is still beyond this present time, significant strides are currently being made in the field of understanding biomechanics and developing robotic biomechanics.

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Research and innovation are key ingredients in innovative breakthroughs with key life-enriching applications that science and technology can bring to our lives. For instance, it was due to the endeavors of Gavriil Ilizarov, the Soviet doctor who developed the Illizarov fixator apparatus in the 1950s, that this writer’s leg could be saved from a destructive road accident. Such innovation can help improve or even save lives.

Hacked spoke to Vikram Pandit, a prosthetics research engineer and operations manager at Los Angeles-based SynTouch, a company at the forefront of sensory technology that empowers robots to literally replicate our sense of touchVikram is also a congenital amputee, born with a single hand and is deemed “instrumental in informing SynTouch’s prosthetics research strategy,” with the unique insight and perspective he offers.

 

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The company was recently awarded two federal research grants that total over $2.5 million over the next few years to develop advanced tactile sensing applications, or, as SynTouch calls it – Machine Touch®.

The company notes:

SynTouch’s products make it possible to do everything you’ve come to expect from your own sense of touch: they enable perception, improve dexterity, prevent damage, and provide awareness.

How does it feel to be your company’s prototype, Vikram?

Vikram: I enjoy being at the cutting edge of prosthetic research. Being patient zero where all of the technology is being tested is awesome and definitely makes me feel like I am using my amputation to help others in my place.

Do you see such innovation generally pushing forward at a faster rate for robotic applications, more-so than for humans?

Vikram: Absolutely. Humans are far more complex than robots. We are barely scratching the service of the human neurological system while we are making leaps in robotic advancement. While we like to think humans can do two things or more at once, we really are only capable of doing one thing and monitoring our second activity passively. A robot, with its onboard computer can be programmed to recognize and accomplish many tasks at once.

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Could you explain how the fingertips detect what they feel?

Vikram: The BioTac has three sensing modalities: force, vibration, and temperature. The sensor is a flexible circuit molded in epoxy with 19 sensing electrodes surrounded by a silicone skin and inflated with a fluid. Force is calculated from the electrodes, which use impedance in the conductive fluid to measure the distance between the skin and the electrode – as the BioTac is pushed on a table, the distance between the skin and the electrodes is smaller.

A pressure sensor embedded in the epoxy core picks up vibrations in the skin transmitted through the fluid. The fingerprints on the outside the skin actually amplify these vibration signals enormously. Temperature is sensed through a thermistor placed at the tip of the BioTac.

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Are there sensors externally located on a residual limb that will help control the prosthesis? If so, does that relay then tell you that you’re holding a super hot cup of coffee?

Vikram: Myoelectric hands universally function off of sensing electrodes located on the residual limb. Their location is based on what muscles on the residual limb produce the strongest signals. The sensors are located on top of the skin, and pick up the electrical activity in a muscle when it flexes. Almost all myoelectric users have two of these sensors, one for opening the terminal device, and the other closing.

At SynTouch we have performed experiments where the sensations from the BioTac were relayed to me through a number of devices we call tactors. The three tactors were placed on my upper arm or bicep and each was correlated with a specific modality of the BioTac. An air pressure cuff similar to a sphygmomanometer was used to squeeze my arm to mirror a force applied to the BioTac. A small cellphone vibrator buzzed on my skin to emulate the sensor picking up vibration, while a small peltier chip relayed temperatures to me. I was able to distinguish hot soup vs cold soup among other things but I didn’t find these tactors useful.

As a unilateral amputee, my sound hand is better and faster than anything available with current technology in sending sensations to my brain, and the foreign signals were more distracting than helpful. Please review the following paper to find out more. Link [PDF].


Is it overwhelming and distracting when with the feedback from the prosthesis? How would you compare it with your other arm?

Vikram: See above. The current methods of relaying sensation as crude and I can only describe them as being annoying.

Is there a means to use the prosthesis on its own, i.e. let it compute and operate on its own without having to let you know what it feels?

Vikram: After coming to the conclusion that the tactors worked, but were distracting and actually took away from the experience of using a prosthetic hand, we moved in a new direction. I found through the experiments that I liked contact detection for fragile grasping. We then developed a new sensor that distilled down the features of the BioTac, called the NumaTac. An air filled open celled foam, the sensor can detect changes in pressure signaling a contact event.

Three of these sensors have been customized into the fingers of a prosthetic hand and can signal the hand that an object has been grabbed. This allows the hand to move quickly and responsively while empty, but slow down the fingers once an object has been grasped to enable low contact forces. This allows a prosthetic user to consistently pick delicate objects like eggs, consistently and reliably.

(It is at this point that Matthew Borzage P.hd., a founding partner SynTouch and operations manager weighed in to add to the answer.)

Matt: The idea that the hand has some local intelligence guiding its interactions may seem odd, but keep in mind that your hands do thousands of adjustments every second you perform tasks with them, all without you consciously thinking about each movement. It takes humans years to learn to do tasks seamlessly, but once we do the mechanics of pouring a glass of water, using a fork and knife, playing an instrument, typing, and, picking up eggs, all become reflexive, and possible to do using the sense of touch alone.

The information the sense of touch acquires is used in reflexive and automatic ways, that the brain expects to be present. Most prosthetic hands remove these reflexes, and require that amputees use their full attention to perform these simple tasks, which is frustrating! The simplified sensor and the reflex Vikram mentions allows users to do these tasks without requiring as much attention, just like you expect to be able to do.

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If BioTac was presumably developed for robotic applications, how far away is BioTac from being integrated with an amputee’s prosthesis?

Vikram: Our sensors are 4 years away from becoming commercially available. We are working with the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration to integrate our technology into prosthetic devices.

In order to truly feel and sense touch, are we decades away from having the technology and tools to have it merge with the human body’s nervous system?

Vikram: Yes. The nervous system is massively complex and a considerable amount of research must occur before “cyborg” technology is viable. We are decades away from a prosthesis being seamlessly integrated into a human’s nervous system.

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How frequently do you use the prosthesis and when do you put away the hook-arm for good?

Vikram: I only have one myoelectric arm right now. Unfortunately at the office and on a hot day I do not wear my prosthesis. Hot days make the socket uncomfortable and sweaty. At the office, I type on a computer and using my prosthesis would be clunky and slow.

What other innovations are SynTouch working on? Are there ideas and concepts in the drawing board that you can reveal?

Vikram: Yes definitely. SynTouch’s most interesting technology up and coming technology is our texture characterization technology. The BioTac was designed with the human finger in mind and can feel everything it can sense (except pain for obvious reason.) SynTouch has built a device integrating the BioTac that can quantify texture. Since the BioTac is designed to feel like a human, it is perfect for this application. Take a look at our client list as an example of who we have worked with.You can liken it to color matching at Home Depot to a degree. Consumer Goods companies are very interested in this technology, as the feel of a product is important to a consumer.

An example is in R&D. Company X wants cloth of a certain texture. Company X produces a number of cloth samples with different formulations in an attempt to achieve the desired texture. Our machine can actually quantify each sample’s texture and the company can use this information to make an informed decision on their cloth production.

Editor’s Note: Hacked thanks Vikram and Matthew for their time and answers.
Images from SynTouch.

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Biotech Dominates July Penny Stock Picks

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July brings new opportunities to trade penny stocks, according to the Investopedia top 10 penny stocks to watch. Biotechnology stocks in particular are poised for a breakout. Biotechnology funds broke out of the long-term basing pattern in June, forcing rotational buying pressure, which bodes well for the low-priced sub-sector, with many penny stocks ready to hit multi-year highs.

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At the same time, the tech sector is getting sold with equal force in a profit-taking exercise that could deliver a period of under-performance for the sector’s lower-priced issues.

June’s biotechnology picks drew strong buying interest, led by ImmunoGen, Inc.’s 48% advance to a 52-week high. Small China stocks also posted strength, as China Commercial Credit, Inc. gained close to 35%. China Commercial Credit and June’s three biotech picks return to the July top penny stock list, joined by six new penny stocks.

1. ImmunoGen Inc. (IMGN)

Source: Investopedia

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ImmunoGen, a provider of antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) for the treatment of cancer, jumped from number four in June to the top spot in July.

The stock posted a 12-year high at $20.25 in 2013 and sold off to $5.34 in December 2014. A recovery in 2015 stalled less than a point below the prior peak, creating a decline that continued into an 18-year low at $1.51 in November 2016.

Buyers took over in 2017, generating an uptick that reversed at the 2014 resistance approximately three weeks ago. In June, the stock broke out and made the top 10 list for the first time. It could end up in the $8.00 to $10.00 price zone.

ImmunoGen creates targeted cancer therapeutics using its proprietary ADC technology. The company’s candidate, mirvetuximab soravtansine, is in a Phase 3 trial for an ovarian cancer, and is in Phase 1b/2 testing in combination regimens for earlier-stage disease.

The technology is used in Roche’s Kadcyla, in three other clinical-stage ImmunoGen product candidates, and in programs in development by Amgen, Bayer, Biotest, CytomX, Lilly, Novartis, Sanofi and Takeda.

2. China Commercial Credit, Inc. (CCCR)

Source: Investopedia

China Commercial Credit Inc. (CCCR), which provides business loans and loan guarantee services to small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs), farmers and individuals in China’s Jiangsu Province, jumped from number five in June to second place in July.

The company went public on the U.S. exchanges at $6.50 in August 2013.

The stock experienced a downtrend that bottomed out at 25 cents in February 2016 and began an upward trend that stalled at $3.20 in September. The stock hit a higher low in March 2017 before recovering, testing the 2016 high. A breakout should bring broad buying interest that could support a continued upside that could double the price by year’s end.

The company was founded in 2008 and provides business loans and loan guarantee services to small-to-medium enterprises, farmers and individuals in China’s Jiangsu Province.

3. CymaBay Therapeutics, Inc. (CBAY)

Source: Investopedia

CymaBay Therapeutics Inc. (CBAY), a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company developing therapies to treat specialty and orphan diseases, returns from the June list, where it ranked number 9. The stock rallied to an all-time high at $13.78 in February 2015, then suffered a steep downtrend that continued into the first quarter of 2016. The stock then dropped to an all-time low at 82 cents before bouncing to $3.04 in April, a yearly high, ahead of a pullback that continued into the November low at $1.15.

The stock broke above the 2016 high in February 2017, reaching a two-year high at $4.81.

Net loss for the 2017 first quarter was $5.4 million, or ($0.20) per diluted share, compared to $6.8 million, or ($0.29) per diluted share in the first quarter of 2016. Net loss in the 2017 first quarter was $1.4 million lower compared to the prior year period, primarily due to the recognition of collaboration revenue in 2017.

The rally has now reached a two-year high, attracting buying interest that could move into double digits.

4. Peiris Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (PIRS)

Source: Investopedia

Pieris Pharmaceuticals Inc., a, clinical-stage biotechnology company committed to providing solutions for oncology, respiratory disease and other therapeutic areas, moved from June’s 7th spot to July’s 4th spot. The stock launched on the OTC market in 2014, trading between $2.00 and $4.25 before falling to $1.26 in January 2016. It ground sideways through November, then tested the first-quarter low ahead of a January 2017 breakaway gap that has drawn steady buying interest. The rally gathered momentum in early May after announcing a partnership with AstraZeneca PLC and is currently testing the 2015 high, the all-time high.

The company’s product includes immuno-oncology multi-specifics tailored for the tumor microenvironment, an inhaled Anticalin protein to treat uncontrolled asthma as well as a half-life-optimized Anticalin protein to treat anemia. Anticalin proteins, proprietary to Pieris, are a class of therapeutics validated in the clinic and partnerships with pharmaceutical companies. Anticalin is a registered trademark of Pieris.

5. 22nd Century Group, Inc. (XXII)

Source: Investopedia

22nd Century Group, Inc. (XXII), a plant biotechnology company that is a provider of tobacco harm reduction and development of proprietary hemp/cannabis strains, broke out above multi-year resistance near $1.50 in 2013, rallying to a record high a few months later at $6.36. The stock then began a persistent decline through August 2015 before finding support at 56 cents, followed by a bounce to $1.75.

The stock has traded within those boundaries for 22-months, bouncing at support three times and reversing at resistance in equal measure. The price returned to that level a fourth time, improving odds for a breakout that could double the price in the year’s second half.

22nd Century Group is a plant biotechnology company focused on genetic engineering and plant breeding that allows the increase or decrease of the level of nicotine in tobacco plants and the level of cannabinoids in cannabis plants. The company’s main goal in tobacco is to reduce the harm caused by smoking. The main goal in cannabis is to develop proprietary hemp/cannabis strains for new medicines and agricultural crops.

The stock last month joined the Russell Microcap Index, when FTSE Russell reconstituted its U.S. and global equity indexes. Membership in the Russell Microcap Index means automatic inclusion in the appropriate growth and value style indexes. FTSE Russell determines membership for its Russell indexes primarily by objective, market-capitalization rankings and style attributes.

6. Corindus Vascular Robotics, Inc. (CVRS)

Source: Investopedia

Corindus Vascular Robotics, Inc. (CVRS), a developer of precision vascular robotics, returned to the national market in 2015 following a trading halt, topping out around $4.50 and starting a decline that continued to reach new lows in January 2017 when it bottomed at around 40 cents. Since that time, the price activity has been constructive, with high volume rally bursts moving the stock into 2016 resistance at $1.75. The bullish behavior has created a cup and handle basing pattern that points to an uptrend into the 2015 high following a breakout.

Revenue for the first quarter of 2017 was $0.8 million compared to $1.1 million for the same period in the prior year. The decrease is due mainly to the deferral of system revenue associated with a future obligation to upgrade multiple customer units from the company’s CorPath 200 System to the CorPath GRX System.

The company installed three new CorPath Systems in the first quarter of 2017, increasing its total installed base to 48 CorPath Systems.

Gross loss was $1.1 million for the 2017 first quarter, compared to a gross profit of $0.03 million for the 2016 first quarter. The cost of revenues for the first 2017 quarter continued to include the effect of under-utilization of production facilities and the cost of CorPath GRX System upgrades that installed pursuant to pre-existing contractual arrangements.

The company continues to expect the full year 2017 revenue to be in the range of $13.

7. RADA Electronic Industries, Ltd. (RADA)

Source: Investopedia

RADA Electronic Industries, Ltd. (RADA), a defense electronics system of advanced electronic systems for airborne and land applications, fell into a multi-decade decline after it joined the Nasdaq in the 1990s. The stock ground out a series of lower highs and lows through January 2016’s all-time 54-cent low.

The stock spent 16 months moving sideways in a narrow basing pattern before turning higher in May 2017 and rallying back to 2016 resistance at $1.78. The bullish activity completed a cup and handle breakout pattern that could point to a fast rally into the August 2015 gap between $3.70 and $2.50.

Revenues totaled $4.7 million in the 2017 first quarter, up 91% compared to revenues of $2.5 million in the first quarter of 2016.

Gross profit totaled $1.7 million in the first 2017 quarter of 2017, a gross margin of 35.7%, compared to gross profit of $6,000 (gross margin of 0.2%) in the 2016 first quarter.

Operating income was $0.4 million in the first 2017 quarter compared to an operating loss of $1 million in the 2016 first quarter.

Net income attributable to RADA’s shareholders in the 2017 first quarter was $0.4 million, $0.02 per share, versus a net loss of $1.8 million, or $0.23 per share, in the 2016 first quarter.

8. ChromaDex, Corp. (CDXC)

Source: Investopedia

ChromaDex, Corp. (CDXC), a provider of proprietary health, wellness and nutritional ingredients, that creates science-based solutions to dietary supplement, food and beverage, skin care, sports nutrition and pharmaceutical products, went public in April 2016 at $4.70. The stock rallied to an all-time high at $6.18 in May, then fell one month later to $2.46 in a single session, eventually posting a lower December low. It tested that support level in April 2017, then turned sharply higher, now testing 2017 resistance at $3.80. A breakout could point to a significant upside, taking the stock back to last year’s high.

For the first quarter of 2017, ChromaDex reported net sales of $4.4 million, a decrease of 39% compared to the same period of 2016, due mainly to decreased sales in its ingredients business segment, as a result of dropping its largest customer for fiscal year 2016. The ingredients segment created net sales of $2.1 million for Q1 2017, a decline of 55%, compared to the same 2016 period.

The net loss attributable to common stock holders for Q1 2017 was $1.9 million or ($0.05) per share versus a net income of $0.3 million or $0.01 per share for Q1 2016.

In May, the company announced the closing of the $16.4 million second tranche of the strategic investment of up to $25 million led by Hong Kong business leader Li Ka-shing.

Li Ka-shing has invested in many innovative companies in the last decade, including Facebook, Spotify, DeepMind, Siri, Impossible Foods and Modern Meadow. The new investment will support future ChromaDex developments in the global marketplace.

The $16.4 million second tranche follows an initial $3.5 million tranche that closed on April 27, 2017.

9. Safe Bulkers, Inc. (SB)

Source: Investopedia

Safe Bulkers, Inc. (SB), a player in the hot and cold dry bulk shipping sector, topped out at $11.48 in March 2014, then entered a downtrend reaching an all-time low at 30 cents in January 2016. A recovery wave in November stalled at $2.38, followed by sideways action that has completed a small-scale cup and handle breakout pattern. A buying spike over $2.60 can be expected to set the upside into action, supporting a rally that could surpass $5.00.

The company declared a cash dividend of $0.50 per share on its 8.00% Series B, Series C and Series D Cumulative Redeemable Perpetual Preferred Shares for the period from April 30, 2017 to July 29, 2017.

This is the 16th consecutive cash dividend declared on the company’s Series B Preferred Shares, the 13th cash dividend declared on its Series C Preferred Shares and the 12th cash dividend declared on its Series D Preferred Shares since their respective commencement of trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

10. Ballard Power Systems, Inc. (BLDP)

Source: Investopedia

Ballard Power Systems, Inc. (BLDP) is a provider of clean energy products that reduce customer costs and risks, and helps customers solve challenges in their fuel cell programs. The stock reached an all-time high at $144.95 in 2000 before falling into a downtrend lasting more than 12 years, sending the stock to an all-time low at 56 cents. A 2013 upward trend continued through 2014, hitting an 8-year high at $8.38, followed by a correction that’s now returned to 2015 resistance at $3.10. A breakout could catch fire, pushing the stock to a test of its 2014 high.

Total revenue was $22.7 million in the quarter, an increase of 39% from growth in both power products and technology solutions.

Gross margin was 42% in the quarter, an improvement of 22 points due to a shift in product mix toward higher margin technology solutions and heavy duty motive for the China market, including the establishment of a production line in Yunfu, China for the manufacture and assembly of FCvelocity-9SSL fuel cell stacks.

Cash operating costs were $10 million in the quarter, a 6% increase due to higher research and product development expenditures as well as a stronger Canadian dollar relative to the U.S. dollar, since a significant amount of cost is denominated in Canadian dollars.

Low-priced biotech stocks have risen following a long slumber, with steady buying interest likely to continue. This group should offer a variety of profitable penny stock plays during the quiet summer trading season, while low-priced stocks in other sectors move into narrow trading ranges.

Featured image from Shutterstock.

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Silicon Valley’s War on Disease: Zuckerberg, Microsoft, Google to End Cancer and Aging

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Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Silicon Valley is going to war against disease, cancer, aging, and perhaps even death, with advanced computing, AI and machine learning, genomics, DNA engineering, biotech and nanotech. Tech giants and mega-rich philanthropists are spending billions to permit hacking biology all the way down to DNA, and perhaps we could see breakthroughs in only a few years.

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Child With Rare Disorder Receives ‘Bionic’ Hand Made By 3D-Printer

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A prosthetic hand made with 3D-printing technology has provided a functional right hand for a 6-year-old boy born with a rare disorder, according to Reuters. The boy, Lucas Abraham, showed his new “bionic” hand made for him by bioengineering students at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Ky.

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https://twitter.com/ChristinaWLKY/status/674644673277857792/video/1

The child noted that it’s the best Christmas gift he’s ever received during a news conference at the university. Within minutes of receiving the hand, Abraham could grasp a ball. A video posted on Twitter shows Lucas getting some practice playing catch with a ball using his new hand. The boy will also be able to crash cymbals together in his music class.

Child Had Asked For A ‘Robo-Hand’

Abraham was born with Symbrachydactyly, a condition where a person does not have a fully-functioning hand or foot. The child was born without fingers on his right hand.

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He had asked for a “robo-hand” for years, a prosthetic device that would allow him to hold a piece of paper, grab a baseball and help him zip his jacket, according to the Courier Journal in Louisville.

Following months of work by the students, this week Abraham went to his school, Bowen Elementary School, wearing his “bionic” hand. The device uses tendon-like cords that allow the child to grip when bending his wrist.

The hand was the first made at the university, according to bioengineering professor Gina Bertocci, who noted that more such hands could be made. The university described the hand as “bionic.”

The 3D technology reduces the manufacturing cost. The plastics used, similar to Lego blocks plastics, enable the devices to be made in different colors, Bertocci noted.

Also read: Interview: The makers of a robotic hand that can ‘feel’

3D Printing Creates New Opportunities

3D printing made it possible to make the hands for less than $50 in materials versus thousands that would be required to make a traditional prosthetic hand, according to Bertocci.

The students created a digital version of the hand and used a 3D printer the size of a small refrigerator to ensure the hand was the right fit. It took more than 30 hours to print each hand.

Kids like the hand because it makes them look like a Transformer, Bertocci added.

e-NABLE, a global volunteer organization that prints and designs prosthetics, provided assistance to the students.

Three hands made of leather, plastic and wire were created to fit Abraham, who will keep two of them while the university will use the third hand for accreditation purposes.

The hands were given to the Abraham family for free.

Julie Abraham, the child’s grandmother, said he has displayed more self-confidence after receiving the hand. She had contacted the university in August to see if they could help him.

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