Obama Geeks Out Over a Brain-Controlled Robotic Arm That ‘Feels’
When Nathan Copeland got into a car accident in 2004, he suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed in both arms and both legs. Eventually, Copeland got a prosthetic—but one that is very different from most anyone else’s out there. Copeland is the first person in the world to use a system created by DARPA and the National Science Foundation, which allows him to “experience” the sensation of touch via a special robotic prosthesis. He has a brain implant that lets him control and feel the system with his mind. Pretty amazing stuff.
Oh, he’s also one of the few Americans who has personally met the President of the United States.
Yesterday in Pittsburgh, during the White House Frontiers Conference, Barack Obama went on a tour of the most cutting-edge US technologies. With just a few months left in office, Obama is seeking to cement his legacy as whole-hearted supporter of science—something that has been a clear differentiator between camps in this crazy election year. Science and technology, Obama seemingly hopes to underline, leads to progress—and, yes, American success.
But more than just being a trumpeter of this message, watching Obama nerd out on science projects himself proves how much of one he is. “I confess I’m a science geek,” Obama announced at the conference. “I’m a nerd. I won’t make any apologies for it.” And this much was clear as he spoke with a handful of Pittsburgh scientists and academics who let him tinker with their machines and ask about their research.
The first stop on the tour was to shake Copeland’s hand. The President chatted quietly, almost conspiratorially, with Copeland, and with University of Pittsburgh assistant professors Robert Gaunt and Jennifer Collinger, who explained to him the science of how the robotic arm worked. Obama held the fingers on the arm, which was mounted to a metal post by Copeland’s side, and moved them one by one. Then he shook the robotic hand. “Do you want to blow it up?” the President asked Copeland. “Let’s blow it up!” The two fist-bumped and mimicked exploding fingers. “Boo-yah!” Obama said.
Then, rather suddenly, he turned to the gathered crowd: “Does everyone fully grasp what’s going on here?” Obama explained not only was Copeland moving the arm himself, using his own brain, whenever he moved the hand it also sent signals to Copeland. “You can imagine what this means over time as this gets miniaturized and more sophisticated,” Obama said. “Somebody who may currently have paralysis but now has, essentially, a set of robot limbs? Nathan’s going to be in a position where there’s all the kids of stuff he’s going to be able to do, and do it without having to manipulate something mechanically—but simply generated by what he’s thinking.”
“Is it painful?” a member of the press called out.
“No, never painful,” Copeland answered. “Look at him!” Obama chimed in. “He’s pretty chill.”
“Tiring?” a reporter pressed. As Copeland said next to no effort was needed, Obama joked, “If you moved your arm up and down all day, you’d get tired of it too.”
Obama then met with a NASA astronaut and Boeing representative, who taught him how to operate a spacecraft flight and docking simulator. The video game-like contraption—complete with dual screens, various knobs and levers, and a sloping hood above Obama’s seat—is the training setup that NASA’s own astronauts are using to prepare for future missions to the International Space Station.
“Uh, let me try to get comfortable,” Obama said, approaching the intimidating-looking machine. “Let me take my jacket off.” He shed his coat and sat in front of the controls, rocking the chair back and forth like a kid testing out the seat of an arcade game. The experts coached him on how to use the simulator—left, right, left. The representative from Boeing representative told Obama what speed he should aim for, but told him not to go so fast that he crashed into the ISS.
“I don’t want to crash!” cried Obama. “This is really expensive stuff… OK, let’s drive.”
A few minutes later: “I’m so tense!” Obama said, struggling to follow the commands and not let the spacecraft drift. The scene made for a pretty good case for anyone who wants to defend their childhood love of video games. And finally, after several moments: “Your ride is here, baby!” the President said as he docked the spacecraft into the ISS. “This is like the Uber shuttle. Just call, they’ll be there in five minutes.”
The press crowd, trailing Obama, hurried over to an autonomous flying machine demo from Carnegie Mellon used for inspecting bridges, imaging, and mapping. Standing in front of one of the screens that apparently sensed motion, Obama flapped his arms for a bit, checking to see if his movements would register.
Several minutes away, one last demonstration awaited Obama: a SpaceX Dragon capsule that has been successfully tested by NASA and meant to keep astronauts safe during human spaceflight. “You almost want to get in and take off, don’t you?” Obama asked. He wondered out loud what it’d be like to bring the whole family along for a trip, and how his kids Malia and Sasha might react to being in the backseat.
And when a SpaceX representative said the company could one day visit Mars, Obama said, “That’s our goal.” Pushing the frontiers of human achievement, at least to this US President, means one day leaving this world entirely. Presidents: they’re kooky science lovers, just like us! Apart from the cabal of Secret Service keeping crowds back at all times. Oh, and they have access to cooler toys, too.