HAL—When Robotics meet Cybernetics
HAL—When Robotics meet Cybernetics

HAL—When Robotics meet Cybernetics

JAPAN and the WORLD took the train to the University of Tsukuba located in Tsukuba city, just northeast of Tokyo, to meet with the visionary and developer behind CYBERDYNE Inc., HAL®, Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai.


The story behind HAL

When I was nine years old, I read I, Robot by Isaac Asimov and decided to become a researcher. During my childhood, I performed many experiments in science and technology fields such as electronics, electrophysiology, chemistry, physics and biology. When I started my academic career, it was easy for me to participate in the development of a variety of scientific and technological fields. Back then, these fields of study were often studied independently, but I pursued my research regardless.

I have always been interested in the human ageing process, which is accompanied by brain and nerve damage or physical impairment and wondered how I could change it.

The principle of the HAL

Generally speaking, most high-technology (high-tech) is developed for the military. My research focuses on medical, welfare and life fields, so I decided to create high-tech and innovative technologies in order to solve social problems. HAL, the world’s first cyborg-type robot, was born from these background.

When a person wants to move his or her body, the brain translates electrical signals into motion intention, which is transmitted through the spinal cord and nerves to the muscles. These nerve circuits are always working to keep our body stable but if there is a problem and these circuits are damaged, we lose physical functions.

The technology used in HAL detects very small and faint bio-electrical signals from the surface of the skin derived from the brain and nervous system and these detected signals are computed and decoded in HAL.

As the motion of the wearer and HAL come together, the sensory nerve signals in conjunction with the motion are then fed back to the human brain. Thus, we can establish interactive biofeedback loop between the cerebral nervous system and the musculoskeletal system via or outside the wearer’s body by the intermediation of HAL. HAL provides functional improvement and functional regeneration for patients with the brain-nerve-muscular disorders, the number of which has increased due to aging society. HAL’s principle became an international patent and on 2014, functional treatment with medical HAL was awarded a gold prize of the Edison awards™ in the treatment section of the science/medical category.

‘Cybernics’ was created as a new academic and technological field, i.e., the fusion of humans, machines and information systems. This field that is centered on cybernetics, mechatronics and informatics, fused-brain and neuroscience, behavioral science, robotics, information technology, physiology, regenerative medicine, psychology, philosophy, ethics, law and more.

A real life case: helping one man move his legs for the first time in his life

We once treated a post-polio patient who sustained nerve damage after he was infected with poliovirus as a child. He was in poor condition and was unable to move his legs by himself for roughly fifty years.

We tried to treat the patient with HAL but his bioelectrical signals could not be detected and he removed the equipment. After that first trial, we enlarged and analyzed his bio signals in our laboratory. In spite of the weakness and sparsity of the signals, they were observably in conjunction with his own motion intention. Accordingly, we developed new, highly sensitive sensors and signal processing technology which improved the HAL prototype, equipping it with interpolation technology of weak and sparse signals corresponding to wearer’s motion intention. Wearing this prototype of HAL, the patient could get used to the technology over a short period of time. Eventually the patient was able to bend and extend his legs for the first time in his whole life. He cried, we all cried—it was a momentous day.

The future of HAL and the challenges faced

In Germany, treatments for patients seeking functional improvement for spinal cord injuries and strokes are provided as a medical service with medical HAL. Because treatment time only takes sixty to ninety minutes, one single HAL can help several individuals: we have used a single device on about five patients in one day. In Germany, public workers’ compensation insurance covers for the HAL treatment. The public workers’ compensation organization has selected our device as an alternative option to provide patients in need with treatment.

In order to distribute these systems to the people who need HAL’s technology, we had to obtain medical certification. CYBERDYNE Inc. was established in order to develop innovative medical products and achieve social innovation by using innovative technologies; now, CYBERDYNE Inc. has been recognized as a research institute by MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology).

Just like the development of a new drug, obtaining a certificate as a medical device from accredited agencies that certify quality and safety is necessary for marketing the product.

HAL’s technologies are innovative and everything is so new. Generally speaking, all innovative technologies have the same problem of having no existing market, no users, no professionals, and no international rules. We need to try to change the “no” to “new” in order to create new markets.

An innovative project within a wider framework for an innovative Japan

The HAL adventure began in 1991. From creating the principle of HAL, basic research, making prototypes, experiments, development, evaluation, development of safety technology and safety evaluation technology, clinical research, clinical evaluation, designing international safety standards, clinical trial, application of medical device approval, to building international collaborations, we passed through a multitude of long roads to get where we are now.

We have an excellent relationship with our government. I visited the Cabinet Office of the government several times to participate in the council for science, technology and innovation and met with Prime Ministers Koizumi, Aso, Abe, and other ministers in the council. All of them wish to see the human assistive industry based on robotics, cybernics and IoT solve the problems of the ageing society and support our efforts.

The Japanese government prepared special funding for only thirty researchers in science and technology fields such as space, biotechnology, robotics and etc. through the FIRST program (Funding Program for World-Leading Innovative R&D on Science and Technology). In the robotics field, I was the only researcher selected and I was also recently selected as one of twelve program managers of the ImPACT Program (Impulsing Paradigm Change through Disruptive Technologies) in order to create ground-breaking innovations that will bring about major changes in the state of industry and society if realized, and to promote high-risk and high-impact R&D.

Now, governments and industries have started to make strategies to solve social problems by the “innovation”. Policy and innovation in science and technology promoted by Japanese government are very important in order to contribute and solve the social problems we are currently facing.

Going global and the need for international safety standards

On March 2014, CYBERDYNE Inc. finished its stock market launch—its current market capitalization is almost USD 3 billion. HAL has already obtained a medical device certificate across the European Union and received the medical device CE marking ”CE-0197.” Now, German public workers’ compensation insurance covers the functional improvement treatment using HAL, and we will apply to statutory health insurance (SHI, national health insurance) in 2015.

Safety is obviously very important. But as this technology is quite new, there are no international rules yet, and the certifying agencies cannot give us the certificate. For this reason, we became an expert member of the ISO committee (ISO: International Organization for Standardization), and contributed the ISO rules for medical and welfare fields, and personal-care fields (including business fields), excluding traditional industrial or military robots.

According to these ISO procedures, CYBERDYNE Inc. has developed various types of human assistive robots and devices, such as medical HAL, HAL for nursing-care support, HAL for heavy work support, a vital sensing system to promote health care, cleaning robots and transporter robots, and challenges to create innovative cybernic systems for realizing a “ZERO intensive nursing-care society.”

Our cleaning robots are now cleaning the floors of office building in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo and cleaning robots, transporter robots and HAL for lumbar support will start to work in Haneda airport, which will soon be the innovative international hub airport.

It’s also very important to distribute these innovative technologies to the U.S. We applied to the FDA in order to obtain medical device approval in 2015, and are making partnerships with excellent medical groups and business experts.

On March 2015, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Ms. Caroline Kennedy visited CYBERDYNE Inc. and we talked about the specific U.S. challenges about medical and welfare fields. I expect that she will construct a bright future for U.S. and Japan relations in medical and welfare fields.

Towards overcoming the social problem through innovative technologies and social transformation

I developed HAL as medical device and also human assistive devices. In Germany, our devices were tested for over a year and a half, and eventually HAL treatments were covered by public workers’ insurance. The hospitals receive the insurance fee, and patients’ independency improves, and total social costs are reduced.

Japan created the Robot Realization Council last September, 2014. I was a member of global agenda council in world economic forum (Davos Forum) and I became the ImPACT Program Manager. I always consider strategies to solve the problems the world is facing by creating the innovative technologies such as robotic and cybernics technologies. Now, political administrations and industries in Europe, the U.S. and Japan, are posing challenges to the next generation of robotics researchers. Robotics is just one technological field, so similar challenges should be posed to other innovative technological fields.

What’s next?

I would like to create innovative cybernic technologies to process and treat the brain-nerve-muscular system for the potential fusion/combination of human and robot in order to realize a “ZERO intensive nursing-care society.” I would also like to establish CEJ (Cybernics Excellence Japan) as a multidisciplinary innovation platform to create a social problem-solving industry.


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