The Story of Henry & Jane

(The following excerpts are from Stanford Magazine, written by Brian Eule and reproduced in the May 2015 edition of Readers digest.)

In 2002, Henry’s life was full. He was physically fit and a towering presence. The chief financial officer at a start-up, he and Jane had four young children. Eight months earlier, they had bought their first house, on a beautiful piece of land in Los Altos Hills (CA). Henry, good with his hands, looked forward to renovating it. He was 40, and life was just beginning.
One August morning, Henry was driving his children to school on the way to work when his vision narrowed, and his speech began to slur. He focused on the road and dropped his children off, and then he turned around. Six miles back up the hill, Henry stumbled into the house. He told Jane that he just wanted to lie down. She said they were going to the doctor. Henry had to crawl to get back to the car.
In the emergency room, Henry’s right arm went limp. “I’m so scared,” he told Jane. And then he fell into a coma.
Doctors initially thought Henry might have meningitis. It turned out that a birth defect had precipitated the stroke-like symptoms. He was put on life support, and when he emerged from the coma two weeks later, he was unable to speak or move. Jane noticed he tracked her with his eyes.
“I soon realized they were all I could move,” Henry writes. My dad explained that I had no motor control, and I got it–I was trapped in my own body.”
At first, Henry was unable to breathe on his own. He had a tracheostomy and a feeding tube, and he was on about 25 medications. Two blinks became “yes,” and one, “no.” He was barely alive, but his mind and his senses were perfectly intact.
A few years later, a television show helped changed Henry’s outlook on life. One day, while watching CNN, he saw an interview with Georgia Tech professor Charlie Kemp. Kemp was discussing his collaboration with Willow Garage, a now defunct robotics research lab in Menlo Park, California, and its robot, the PR2. Henry immediately recognized the potential of robots to level the playing field for severely disabled individuals.
Like Henry, many people are dependent on caregivers for their “activities of daily living,” as they are called: eating, showering, moving around, shaving, even scratching an itch. But robots have the potential to help by serving as extensions or surrogates for body parts.
Living with quadriplegia had given Henry a grasp of what ideas would be beneficial in practice. Using a head tracker that converts tiny head movements into cursor movements, Henry fired off e-mails to Steve Cousins, then president and CEO of Willow Garage, and to Kemp. Longer e-mail discussions and, eventually, a collaboration ensued between Henry and Jane, Willow Garage, and the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech that led to the use of robots that function as body parts for the severely disabled. Henry called it Robots for Humanity, describing his work on the company’s website as “using technology to extend our capabilities, fill in our weaknesses, and let people perform at their best.
Thanks to software developed primarily by Kemp, Henry could operate the robot remotely on his own computer. When it came time to test the technology for shaving, Kemp agreed to be the guinea pig in a practice run. One day in his lab at Georgia Tech, Kemp sat very still as a robot controlled by Henry in California moved closer to Kemp’s stubble-covered face. The robot held an electric razor. Tight in the professor’s hand, a small control with a red kill-switch button. The trial was a success. Later that day, a clean-shaven Kemp sent out an e-mail to their collaborators.
“I suspect that a mobile manipulator controlled from across the country by a person with quadriplegia to help someone shave is a first for robotics,” Kemp wrote.
The implications of the trail was significant. It provided further evidence that people with motor impairments could operate robots to perform physical labor from remote sites, perhaps for compensation. Kemp envisioned people with impairments also helping one another remotely.
Not long after his practice run with Kemp, Henry shaved his own face.
On November 20, 2013, nearly 3,000 miles away from Henry’s Los Altos Hills home, a capacity crowd fills Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, DC, and applauds as Henry is introduced to talk about his new technology. A robot rolls onto a stage. A monitor on top shows Henry, back in California. The audience grows quiet.
A speaking device reads what Henry types, and he controls a robot from the other side of the country with his head tracker. Henry “speaks”–both on stage and at home beside Jane–and demonstrates how he can fly a drone remotely, in front of his listeners.
“From a distance, all humans are disabled,” Henry tells his audience. “We can’t run faster than about 25 miles per hour. We can’t fly. We can’t stay underwater forever. All humans are limited by nature in many ways.”
The next time you see a disabled person, Henry tells the crowd, remind yourself that you use assistive devices at least as often as he or she does. But that doesn’t diminish you. “Your disability doesn’t make you any less of a person, and neither does mine.” he says. He gets a standing ovation.