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Next-gen artificial limbs help amputees grab onto a better life

Even when Adrian Albrich sits still, you can hear the motors in his hand whirring. Bzzzt. Vrrrt. Zyyt. Little more than a month after doctors outfitted him with a new prosthetic left hand, Albrich still fidgets with it, clenching and unclenching, alternating grips, acclimating to the way it feels and reacts.

With spindly metal fingers, carbon-fiber knuckles and black silicon fingertips, there’s no mistaking Albrich’s prosthetic left hand for its muscle-and-bone counterpart, but the things it can do certainly come close. He can grasp a water bottle and twist off the cap.

Pick up a quarter off the table. Hold a tiny finishing nail while he pounds it in with a hammer. He can even view a graph of the electric signals he uses to trigger it … on an iPhone. Try doing that with the real thing.

Though he’s one of the first recipients in the United States to receive one, Adrian’s hand – an i-Limb Digits from a company called Touch Bionics – is part of a growing wave of next-gen prosthetics. Using some of the same advanced technologies that power modern smartphones, these electronic limbs are finally making it out of experimental labs, and changing the way amputees, live, work, and play in the real world.

Twenty-six years ago, at the age of 19, Albrich was working at a sawmill in the little Oregon town of Baker City when a log buckled in a conveyor belt and kicked him into an 18-inch chop saw. The blade chewed through his left hand like one of the area’s plentiful ponderosa pines.

He lost the hand just below the wrist, leaving Albrich’s hand with no fingers, but some remaining movement where his forearm ends – a “partial hand,” in the parlance of prosthetists.

“It could have been much worse,” he says, with the confident air of a man who has long since given up on feeling sorry for himself. An 18-inch saw, after all, can take a lot more than a hand.

The blade chewed through his left hand like one of the area’s plentiful ponderosa pines.

In the nearly three decades since losing his left hand, Albrich has tried different prosthetics, but always arrived back at the same conclusion: They weren’t for him. He abandoned his standard two-fingered “hook” prosthetic when his children were born, for their own safety. And the clumsy replacements that came later left him self-conscious. The early models were always bigger than the hands they were meant to replace. “It felt like I was carrying a pool cue hanging out of my left shirt sleeve.” Albrich says.

Then he spotted the i-Limb Digits online, and Albrich decided it might be worth revisiting prosthetics. “The part that impressed me the most is that it was designed for someone with a partial hand, which no other prosthetic had been in the past,” Albrich says. No more pool cue.

After contacting a doctor in Seattle to see how he could go about getting his own Digits, Albrich ended up at Advanced Arm Dynamics, a Portland, Oregon clinic that specializes in prosthetics for upper extremities, including the advanced i-Limb Digits. Introduced a little more than a year ago, the bionic hand is still so new, the clinic speculates that fewer than 50 people in the United States have one.

Just as faster, smaller, more efficient processors allow our smartphones to get more powerful, more compact and run longer, the same advances are finding their way into active prosthetics. But the results are a lot more dramatic than being able to load Reddit two seconds faster, or snag an extra hour of video playback.

“Electric digits have been around for about 10 years, but the size of the fingers themselves, even over the past three years, has really improved to the point where we can fit them on a much larger percentage of the population,” says MacJulian Lang, the prosthetist who outfitted Albrich with his new hand. “The hand that he’s running, even 15 years ago, would have taken a backpack to run.” Now, ultra-efficient DC motors that move each finger fit right inside them, and the tiny processors and lithium-ion battery packs – similar to what you might find powering a smartphone – hide in a slim wrist strap.

idigits

The prosthesis locks onto Albrich’s partial hand with only suction, a clever approach that prevents the prosthesis from locking up his wrist. “Try picking a glass some time, but keeping your arm straight,” he explains. “You have to manipulate your entire body to get your hand where you want it.” The contortion is not only tiring – it can lead to other injuries, as different body parts get overused.

“It’s kind of re-teaching my body how to operate a limb that hasn’t been there for so many years.”

Inside the cuff, gold-plated electrodes press against the remaining muscles that Albrich would have used with his hand – for instance, the abductor digiti minimi, the hammy part of your hand you would use to move your pinky finger away from your ring finger in a Vulcan salute. Albrich’s brain sends a myoelectric signal down the belly of his muscles, which is picked up by the electrodes, amplified, passed off to the processor, and interpreted to manipulate the hand accordingly. It’s not any more intuitive than it sounds.

idigits-6

“The first half hour or 45 minutes, I didn’t think it was going to be possible,” Albrich says. “It’s kind of re-teaching my body how to operate a limb that hasn’t been there for so many years.”

Training himself to move his remaining muscles was only the beginning; he still needed to memorize what they did. Like the array of buttons on a Mortal Kombat arcade machine, different combinations of triggers can tell the hand’s microprocessor to pull different moves. For example, what seems like the same trigger might alternate between activating a two-fingered pinching grip you would use to pick up a pencil, and the full-hand grip you would use to grab a can of Coke.

After more than a month, Albrich still gets a few surprises. At one point in Lang’s office, his hand threw up a pair of devil horns as if he were at a Black Sabbath show. “I have no idea how I did that,” he says with a laugh.

Software helps manage the potentially confusing array of configurations. When the hand is connected to a computer via Bluetooth, Albrich can see a graph showing the signal from each of his myoelectric triggers tracing across the screen in real time, with a line representing the threshold he has to cross to spark a reaction from the hand.

idigits-9

He can see the signal from each sensor as he flexes, train his muscles to better control them, adjust the thresholds to prevent accidental activation, and remap which triggers correspond to which grips. I-Digits even makes an iPhone app that Albrich could use to get the same data on the go. But as a diehard Android fan, he’s not interested. “Even my hand is not worth switching over to Apple,” says Albrich. He’s laughing, but it’s not a joke.

People still stop to watch when Aldrich ties his shoes one-handed – a feat that requires no electric digits, and a reminder that he can still get through life just fine without them. But Albrich says he’s still grateful for the doors his 21st century hand has opened. “Doing something as simple as holding onto a potato to cut it, which I recently did, is just amazing.”

Almost every week, Albrich drives more than an hour from his home in Salem, Oregon to get further rehabilitation at Advanced Arm Dynamics – one of the few clinics that offers such extensive follow-up training for prosthetic users. “Every time that we do this, we’re figuring out new things that it can do,” he says, “or new ways that I can apply it to my everyday life.”

“I can manipulate something as delicate as a flower without crushing it,” Albrich adds. “But I can also put a grip on something [so strong] that you couldn’t pry it out of my hand.”

idigits-7

His favorite trick, though, is driving – if only for the shock value it elicits when other drivers cruise by and see a metal fist wrapped around the steering wheel in the car next to them. Though the i-Limb Digits can be wrapped in a silicon skin made to look more like a normal hand, Albrich prefers the utilitarian look of the unmasked components.

“It’s not a real hand. I don’t want the pretense of it trying to look like a real hand,” he says. Besides, the Terminator look has its own perks. “It’s a great conversation starter. I deal with people for a living, so it suits my needs.”

Although Albrich’s I-Limb Digits are on the cutting edge of commercially available prosthetics, they still have their limitations. Namely, sensation.

idigits-5

Without any feedback from the hand to his brain, Albrich’s only idea of how tightly he’s gripping something comes from visual and audio cues, like a water bottle crinkling under force. “It’s kind of like wearing a really thick glove: You have a basic idea of where you hand is and what it’s feeling.”

“I can manipulate something as delicate as a flower without crushing it.”

The next major leap in prosthetics, direct neural integration, would solve that. By wiring sensors into the hand that connect directly to the brain, a prosthetic limb could both move when a user tells it to, and let him know when he’s made contact with it.

“My guess is within five years, there’s going to be clinically applicable ways to provide that sensation, that sense of touch, back into that feedback loop, so people have a knowledge of where their fingers are and what they’re doing,” says Lang. “It’s one of the things that makes upper-limb prosthetics in some ways frustrating but in some ways really exciting: We’re still just scratching the surface.”

Scratching the surface or not, Albrich remains continually impressed by what his humble electronic limb can do.

“This is really just a spectacular little tool,” he says, cradling the Digits. “I keep referring to it as a tool, but it’s more than that to the person that wears it. It’s just amazing what it can do.”

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It’s Time to Take Artificial Intelligence Seriously

No Longer an Academic Curiosity, It Now Has Measurable Impact on Our Lives

The age of intelligent machines has arrived—only they don’t look at all like we expected. Forget what you’ve seen in movies; this is no HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and it’s certainly not Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice in “Her.”

It’s more akin to what happens when insects, or even fungi, do when they “think.” (What, you didn’t know that slime molds can solve mazes?)

Artificial intelligence has lately been transformed from an academic curiosity to something that has measurable impact on our lives. Google Inc. used it to increase the accuracy of voice recognition in Android by 25%.

The Associated Press is printing business stories written by it. Facebook Inc. is toying with it as a way to improve the relevance of the posts it shows you.

What is especially interesting about this point in the history of AI is that it’s no longer just for technology companies. Startups are beginning to adapt it to problems where, at least to me, its applicability is genuinely surprising.

Take advertising copywriting. Could the “Mad Men” of Don Draper’s day have predicted that by the beginning of the next century, they would be replaced by machines? Yet a company called Persado aims to do just that.

Persado does one thing, and judging by its client list, which includes Citigroup Inc. and Motorola Mobility, it does it well. It writes advertising emails and “landing pages” (where you end up if you click on a link in one of those emails, or an ad).

Here’s an example: Persado’s engine is being used across all of the types of emails a top U.S. wireless carrier sends out when it wants to convince its customers to renew their contracts, upgrade to a better plan or otherwise spend money.

Traditionally, an advertising copywriter would pen these emails; perhaps the company would test a few variants on a subset of its customers, to see which is best.

But Persado’s software deconstructs advertisements into five components, including emotion words, characteristics of the product, the “call to action” and even the position of text and the images accompanying it.

By recombining them in millions of ways and then distilling their essential characteristics into eight or more test emails that are sent to some customers, Persado says it can effectively determine the best possible come-on.

“A creative person is good but random,” says Lawrence Whittle, head of sales at Persado. “We’ve taken the randomness out by building an ontology of language.”

The results speak for themselves: In the case of emails intended to convince mobile subscribers to renew their plans, initial trials with Persado increased click-through rates by 195%, the company says.

Here’s another example of AI becoming genuinely useful: X.ai is a startup aimed, like Persado, at doing one thing exceptionally well. In this case, it’s scheduling meetings. X.ai’s virtual assistant, Amy, isn’t a website or an app; she’s simply a “person” whom you cc: on emails to anyone with whom you’d like to schedule a meeting.

Her sole “interface” is emails she sends and receives—just like a real assistant. Thus, you don’t have to bother with back-and-forth emails trying to find a convenient time and available place for lunch.

Amy can correspond fluidly with anyone, but only on the subject of his or her calendar.

This sounds like a simple problem to crack, but it isn’t, because Amy must communicate with a human being who might not even know she’s an AI, and she must do it flawlessly, says X.ai founder Dennis Mortensen.

E-mail conversations with Amy are already quite smooth. Mr. Mortensen used her to schedule our meeting, naturally, and it worked even though I purposely threw in some ambiguous language about the times I was available.

But that is in part because Amy is still in the “training” stage, where anything she doesn’t understand gets handed to humans employed by X.ai.

It sounds like cheating, but every artificially intelligent system needs a body of data on which to “train” initially. For Persado, that body of data was text messages sent to prepaid cellphone customers in Europe, urging them to re-up their minutes or opt into special plans.

For Amy, it’s a race to get a body of 100,000 email meeting requests. Amusingly, engineers at X.ai thought about using one of the biggest public database of emails available, the Enron emails, but there is too much scheming in them to be a good sample.

Both of these systems, and others like them, work precisely because their makers have decided to tackle problems that are as narrowly defined as possible.

Amy doesn’t have to have a conversation about the weather—just when and where you’d like to schedule a meeting. And Persado’s system isn’t going to come up with the next “Just Do It” campaign.

This is where some might object that the commercialized vision for AI isn’t intelligent at all. But academics can’t even agree on where the cutoff for “intelligence” is in living things, so the fact that these first steps toward economically useful artificial intelligence lie somewhere near the bottom of the spectrum of things that think shouldn’t bother us.

We’re also at a time when it seems that advances in the sheer power of computers will lead to AI that becomes progressively smarter.

So-called deep-learning algorithms allow machines to learn unsupervised, whereas both Persado and X.ai’s systems require training guided by humans.

Last year Google showed that its own deep-learning systems could learn to recognize a cat from millions of images scraped from the Internet, without ever being told what a cat was in the first place.

It’s a parlor trick, but it isn’t hard to see where this is going—the enhancement of the effectiveness of knowledge workers. Mr. Mortensen estimates there are 87 million of them in the world already, and they schedule 10 billion meetings a year.

As more tools tackling specific portions of their job become available, their days could be filled with the things that only humans can do, like creativity.

“I think the next Siri is not Siri; it’s 100 companies like ours mashed into one,” says Mr. Mortensen.

Make International Phone Calls from your Mobile even without the Internet

How do you make international calls from your mobile phone? Mobile carriers often charge exorbitant rates for international phone calls but you can Internet based services like Skype or Google Hangouts and call any landline or cell phone number in the world for a low per minute fee.

All you need is a mobile phone connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot and some credit balance in your account for making the phone call.

You can use these VoIP apps when travelling overseas as well and make significant savings for both domestic and international calls.

Now consider a scenario where you have a mobile phone but there’s no Wi-Fi around and the 3G/4G services are either slow or unavailable.

Would you still be able to place calls through any of these apps? The answer is obviously in the negative but there’s at least one app that has figured out a unique solution to this common problem.

The app, known as Ringo, lets you make international calls from your mobile phone but “without” requiring the Internet. It does so by cleverly converting your request to dial an international number into a local number.

Let’s say you are trying to call someone in Singapore from India. When you make a call through Ringo, the app will internally dial a local number in India.

At the other end in Singapore, it will again make a local call to the desired number and will connect these two calls using their own infrastructure. This process is transparent to the end users though it make few seconds extra to initiate the call.

International Call Rates – Comparison

Here’s a chart comparing the voice calling rates (in cents per minute) for all the popular voice calling apps. Ringo not only allows you make international phone calls without 3G or WiFi but it is cost-effective too.

Skype Viber Ringo
Callback
Ringo
Wifi
Google
Hangouts
USA 2.3 1.9 1.2 0.2 Free
India 1.5 2.2 1.9 0.9 1.0
UK 2.3 5.9 1.4 0.4 3.0
Russia 2.3 7.9 12.5 11.6 12
Brazil 3 19 3.6 2.6 6.0
China 2 1.3 1.6 0.6 1.0
Singapore 2.3 1.9 1.4 0.4 2.0

In my testing, I found the voice quality good and the app automatically figures out all the international numbers in your phonebook.

 Also when open a contact inside Ringo, it will show their current local time and this little detail does help save a trip to Google.

Is Ringo a replacement for Skype or Google Hangouts? Well, yes and no. With Ringo, you do not need the Internet to make phone calls but you still need a local number.

In the case of Skype, you do not need a local number but you have to be connected to the Internet.

Also, Ringo is mobile only while Skype lets you call telephone numbers from Mac and Windows PCs as well.

Ringo is available for Android, iPhone and Windows Phone.

Coin, The Credit-Card-Of-The-Future Project, Hit A Big Snag

coin smart card

Coin is the much-hyped (and very successful) crowdfunded project that aims to change everything about how you pay for things.

You might think of it as “one credit card to rule them all” — it digitally stores multiple credit numbers on one device, which you can swipe as though it were a standard card.

But there’s still quite a ways to go before the miracle card becomes a casual, everyday, no-big-deal reality, reports The Verge. For now, the device only works at 85% of credit card terminals.

Coin was originally supposed to launch by the end of this year.

In the interest of field-testing and getting that up to a much more desirable 100% compatibility rate, the company today launched Coin Beta, offering 10,000 of its earliest backers the choice to “sacrifice” their final, retail edition of Coin to get a prototype ahead of time.

They’ll later have the option to buy the retail version at 70% off, and any other Coin products that beta testers buy over the next three years will be had at 50% off.

The takeaway is that Coin is close to working, and will be even closer upon launch of the company’s app — August 28 for iOS, September 25 for Android. A special “reader” accessory that comes with Coin captures card data and saves it to your phone, and the app lets you select which cards you want to have access to on Coin.

The £4,200 budget smartphone for back pocket billionaires

By now you know that Vertu is the go-to global brand for upscale cellular devices – however with starting prices that nudge the £7k mark, the current line of handsets have been reserved for the kind of guys who would pay for one with their titanium Amex.

That is, until now. With the launch of the phonemaker’s new model there’s now a sleeker and (slightly) more affordable iteration for aspiring one per cent-ers.

Starting at £4,200, the Aster is significantly cheaper than its cousin, the recently launched Signature Touch. However it’s wrong to think of this as the Signature Touch “light”; the Aster has a very impressive tech spec of its own, including a 4.7 inch 1080p sapphire crystal display, 64GB of internal memory, a 13MP camera on the back (and a 2.1MP one on the front), and a quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor with 2GB of RAM to ensure the Android 4.4 KitKat OS goes without a glitch.

All of these are exactly the same as on the Signature Touch. There’s also wallpaper included from the Tate gallery as well as ringtones composed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Dolby speakers to listen to them on. So far, so good.

The main difference is the design of the handset, which you’ll immediately clock is far more pared down than the Touch with its ballsy, almost Star Trek-esque ear panel (or “pillow” as the brand calls it).

Perhaps it’s because it fits in with the current trend towards more understated items that we’re seeing in the luxury industry, or perhaps it’s because it sits more easily in your hand or slips slightly smoother into your pocket, but we like this new design a lot.

While this model might not be crafted from the kind of high-end mixed metals available for theTouch – such as gold or all-over PVD black titanium (one of the main factors, no doubt, in the reduced price) – the simpler polished titanium edges are an impressive alternative.

This being Vertu, there’s also a whole host of exotic skins that your handset can be clad in from “entry level” calf leather (£4,200) to karung (£5,600) up to top-of-the-range ostrich in cognac (pictured, £5,900).

The only real downside? That trademark red ruby button on the right-hand titanium panel will only get you a six-month stint with the Vertu’s famous concierge team, as opposed to a year of expert recommendations from a dedicated “personal lifestyle manager” with the Touch.

However, if you’re looking to supplement your handset with other accessories, you’ll be pleased to hear that there is also a co-ordinating range of beautiful protective leather cases (from £280) to accompany your new purchase.

Because, let’s face it, you’re going to want to make sure this phonestays pristine for as long as possible.

FBI boss ‘concerned’ by smartphone encryption plans

Plans by Apple and Google to do more to protect customers’ privacy have made the FBI “very concerned”.

Speaking to reporters, FBI boss James Comey said the plans to enable encryption by default could thwart law enforcement investigations.

Lives could depend on police forces continuing to get access to the data on devices used by criminals and terrorists, he said.

The FBI was talking to both Apple and Google about its fears, said Mr Comey.

Protect privacy

The conversations with tech firms needed to be had before the day when police forces lost access to those devices, he said.

“I’d hate to have people look at me and say, ‘Well how come you can’t save this kid?’ ‘How come you can’t do this thing?'” said Mr Comey in a briefing.

His comments came in reaction to a decision by Apple to enable a file encryption system on its iOS 8 software for which it has no keys. This means it would not be able to comply with any official request to help police get at the data on those devices.

Google has said it too is planning to enable a similar encryption system by default on the next version of Android.

Mr Comey said he was “very concerned” about these plans because of what they would allow people to do.

“What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law,” he said.

“I am a huge believer in the rule of law, but I am also a believer that no-one in this country is beyond the law,” he added.

Apple and Google have yet to respond to Mr Comey’s comments.

Ten days prior to Mr Comey’s press statement, iOS data forensics expert Jonathan Zdziarski pointed out that Apple’s encryption system would not stop police getting at data on portable devices.

Specifically weakening security systems just to aid the police was a bad decision, he said.

“For the sake of privacy and overall security, the only logical solution is to make products as secure as possible, and let good detective work do the crime solving, rather than an easy button,” he wrote in a blogpost.

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