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How Tech Transforms the Lives of People in Need

When you think of technological innovations, you probably focus on something like the next-generation iPhone’s integration with GPS and Google Maps or the new Netflix player for streaming movies and TV episodes from the Internet. But technology is also transforming the lives of people in need. Among the life-changing advances:

  • Surgical precision The latest developments in robotics are making surgery less invasive and improving the outcomes of patients with some cancers.
  • Mobility People with disabilities are less limited in their mobility, thanks to a next-generation wheelchair, the iBot.
  • Computer access Children in developing countries are gaining access to the computing world via the XO, developed by the One Laptop Per Child program.

Robots with better eyes -- and hands
If you ever need prostate or gynecological surgery, chances are your doctor might be aided by robotic systems that make surgery more precise and less invasive.

Since the FDA approved the use of robots for surgery in 2000, their use has become much more common, says Randy Fagin, director of the prostate center of Austin. In 2000, less than 2 percent of prostate surgeries were done with robotic help. “This year, 70 percent of prostate surgeries will be done robotically,” Fagin says.

The da Vinci surgical system, which Fagin uses, gives doctors superhuman vision, as well as more precise surgical control. The vision system’s three-dimensional stereoscopic view magnifies what the doctor can see by ten times.

“It’s vision like we never had before,” Fagin says. “If you can see it better, you have the potential to do better.” The doctor uses the system’s console to manipulate the four robotic arms, which have a special jointed wrist design that boasts greater range of motion than natural human hands. “I can perform more precise movements with the robot than with hands alone,” Fagin says. That means better surgical outcomes, less pain, less blood loss, a faster recuperative period and shorter times in the hospital, he says.

You’d think that robotic surgery would be more expensive to the patient, since the systems cost $1.9 million each and carry a yearly maintenance cost of $140,000, but hospitals absorb the cost, Fagin says. Since surgery is less invasive, the hospital uses fewer resources to care for the same patient -- which means more patients can be cared for.

Although the da Vinci system is the most commonly used, other robotic systems are being adopted, such as the CyberKnife from Accuray. The CyberKnife is a radiosurgery device that noninvasively treats tumors anywhere in the body by delivering very precise high-dose radiation, according to the company. The robots can automatically adjust to any movements the patient makes during the treatment.

More mobility for the disabled
Imagine popping a wheelie with a wheel chair -- and traveling that way. The iBot4000 Mobility System, from Independence Technology of Warren, N.J., goes beyond the standard wheelchair. Developed by Dean Kamen, it uses similar technology as the Segway, the electric, self-balancing “human transporter” Kamen also invented.

As opposed to a wheelchair, which keeps its occupants at waist or chest level, the iBot allows riders to rise up, enabling them to see eye to eye with others or to reach something on a counter or shelf that might be out of reach from a standard wheelchair. Riders can move over uneven terrain, such as a sandy beach or a grassy field, for example, as well as climb stairs and curbs.

“I can do things I normally would not do,” says Alan Brown of Hollywood, Fla. Brown used a regular wheelchair for 15 years before acquiring an iBot, and especially likes being able to travel at a higher level. “Being at eye level is great,” Brown says. “I got tired of looking up at everybody, and people looking down at me.”

The iBot uses gyroscopes to balance its occupants at a higher level. And while it might appear precarious, the gyroscopes are constantly working with shifting centers of gravity to keep balance, just as a Segway would. If you are jostled, the gyroscopes compensate. Someone would have to bump into you pretty hard to knock you over.

At $26,100, the iBot is pricier than a standard motorized wheelchair, which might cost $3,000 to $5,000. However, the iBot combines multiple functions that might have required multiple chairs before, the company says. About 40 percent of iBot’s customers are covered 100 percent by insurance of some sort, including the Veterans Health Administration.

Opening a world of knowledge
Children all over the world deserve an opportunity to participate in the computer and online world, gaining access to knowledge and exploring, experimenting and expressing themselves. That’s the premise of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, which has developed an inexpensive laptop called the XO. The goal of the nonprofit, run by MIT Media Lab Chairman Emeritus Nicholas Negroponte, was to deliver a laptop at $100 that could be donated to children in developing countries. The XO-1 debuted at $188, but the organization expects to get the cost down to $100 this year, according to spokeswoman Jackie Lustig.

Prices are kept down because the computers use flash memory instead of a hard drive. The first iteration of XO used Linux, the free open source operating system, with a graphical interface called Sugar. Responding to demand from some countries, the XO will debut with a version of Windows this year. The XO uses mobile ad hoc networking to allow many machines to share Internet access through one connection.

After years of promise, the computers are being manufacturing in volume. 370,000 units have shipped so far, and there are orders for another 750,000, Lustig says.

If the nonprofit has its way, children all over the world will at least have the chance to tap into their potential, to be exposed to new ideas and to make the world a better place.

It’s a next-generation approach that might prepare these children to develop future world-changing innovations themselves.

Copyright (c) 2010 Studio One Networks. All rights reserved.


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