Ken Endo | The Man Behind The Metal
The Paralympic Games represent the resilience of the human spirit. They remind us of what is possible when we refuse to accept challenges as defeat, and they aid us in correcting the wrong-minded biases that many of us have about people with disabilities-
But you already knew that.
Each para-athlete has a backstory as compelling as the next, and those stories are at the heart of why the Paralympic Games exist in the first place. But dive into any one of those emotional stories, and it won't take you long to find an engineer tinkering on the machine that made that Paralympic catharsis possible.
Technology is, by its very nature, human-centered; created by humans, for humans, to amplify our potential and allow us to accomplish things that would be impossible without it. Xiborg founder, Ken Endo, embraced this notion a long time ago and has dedicated his career to testing the limits of a specific type of technology: prosthetic running blades. He spoke with me via Google Hangouts to share with me how he got started in this industry, what his goals are for the future, and what he believes is missing from the conversation surrounding mobility.
Thanks for hanging out with me for a little while today, Ken. I really appreciate your time. To start us off, I’m curious about your background, and how you decided to get into the field that you’re in now.
So, uh, originally I started to work on prosthetics technology back in 2005. I went to the US and started to learn under professor Hugh Herr at the MIT media lab. I was a key member of the team working on the robotic ankle prosthesis. I learned much about the anatomy of the human ankle and about the biomechanics of ankle function in robotics. That’s my PhD thesis. At the same time, in 2008, Oscar Pistorius was trying to compete in the olympics. The team at MIT analyzed him and supported him in joining the Olympic Games at that time. I had a chance to see him and saw how fast he ran. I was very inspired by his running behavior. I felt that that blade technology would be one day worn by the Olympic Champion of the future. That’s why I was excited to explore that field. After getting my Phd I went back to Japan and was at a point where I could decide which direction to go in. That’s when I decided to pursue the path of sports biomechanics and trying to make prosthesis for athletes.
When you went back to Japan, you worked for Sony for a little while, right?
Yes, they gave the freedom to do what I wanted to do. That’s why I went to Sony.
What made you decide to go to MIT?
Because I had the chance to see Professor Hugh Herr at a conference and I got to know him. At that time I used to work on biped motor robots.
Yeah, haha. I decided to change my field because my friend lost his leg. So I simply wanted to make a leg for him. That’s why I wanted to work on prosthesis at the time.
So, what year did you found Xiborg?
And, what kind of progress have you made since then?
At the beginning, I tried to form a team to start the company. I’m an engineer, so I was also trying to build our blade at the time. Our mission is to make athletes faster. The blade is just a blade. It’s a tool for the athlete. So we needed to find and athlete and a coach and prosthetics.
Did you meet Dai when you were in Tokyo?
Yes, I believe I did.
Dai is our team coach. He’s coaching our athlete Keita Sato. He’s one of the founders of Xiborg and was an Olympian of the 400m. I also found Keita Sato, and our other two athletes. So that’s how it all started- from zero, basically. Keita competed in the Rio Paralympic Games in 2016, and used our first prototype; our first commercialized prosthesis. I also met Jarryd Wallace at the same time. Jarryd is very clever, and interested in technology as well, he’s also a great speaker. Athletes tend to not be very good at communicating with engineers, so that’s why I asked Jarryd to join our team. In total, we now have four athletes working together.
And they are all single leg amputees?
Jarryd mentioned to me one day that regardless of whether it’s the Olympics or the Paralympics, every sprinter is racing against the clock. With that in mind, do you think it’s important to try and follow in the footsteps of Pistorius to try and get another Paralympic athlete to the Olympics, or do you think it’s enough to have a Paralympian beat the world’s fastest time, no matter the venue?
The Olympics are just a game, as are the Paralympics. It’s my personal opinion that it’s hard to combine the two. I don’t care much about how the two are distinguished. My curiosity is the combination of the human and the technology. We always think of disabled athletes only as “disabled”. We think of them as always losing to unimpaired athletes. With technology and how it combines with the form of the athletes, we may see that change in the future. It seems like a small step in human functionality, but it will lead to very big differences in the future. That’s why we are dedicated to perfecting our blade technology.
Do you think you’ll achieve your goal in 2020?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think it’s far away still, but the job is consistently working to pioneer that field.
What’s stopping you from achieving your goal by 2020?
Every athlete runs differently. We’re all exploring the best way for each athlete to run faster, and a universal answer is not yet clear.
Do you see that much variety even in your four athletes?
Yeah, they’re pretty much all different. So now, we’re trying to decide on our next hypothesis so we can continue to test and learn.
So you have a very specific goal, but you’re also part of this larger movement, especially in Tokyo, around mobility. I’m curious, from your perspective, what is the biggest challenge in attempting to achieve a future of mobility for all?
Currently, the mobility industry is based on mass production. The car, the automobile, is the main mode of transportation for us. The size of all automobiles are pretty much the same from every company. This is our standard because all people basically want the same types of vehicles. You have similar family units all over the world that have the same mobility needs, and that’s what the industry has been built around. It’s been built around what we want. However, we’re at a point now where each person wants more flexibility. People want very personalized mobility. This means that the mobility industry needs to have more flexibility and diversity in the future. That’s why Toyota is now focusing on “personal mobility.”
So just as each athlete has different needs, each individual has different mobility needs. Are we talking about asking large corporations to start creating more custom products?
Yes. We were talking about prosthetics- If you look at 3-D scanners and 3-D printers, they used to be very expensive, but now they’re becoming very affordable. These things may not yet be accessible to absolutely everyone, but I do think that this type of technology will be useful to satisfy each individuals personal needs.
Ha, wow. So are you imagining a world where if an athlete is running on a prosthetic and something snaps, they could go to their home and print out replacement parts?
Yes. A mission of ours is to create that system. We’re in the process of acquiring detailed data about each of our athletes using motion capture technology and MRI to see the full view of the muscle. If we can optimize the specifications of each blade, we can fabricate it with 3-D printing technology and test it, and eventually make it an automated process that still makes the best blade for each athlete.
Other than this mass production vs. personalization problem, what else, if anything, is missing from the conversation about mobility? Any particular voice or topic?
I don’t know if this is an appropriate answer, but I’m currently interested in extreme human-centered design. I believe that’s what’s currently missing. Have you ever heard of “Lead User?”
Erik Von Hippel, he’s a professor at MIT, and he created the concept of the lead user; the concept of extreme human-centered technology. Formula One is one example of the Lead User. They want to create the fastest automobile for Formula One. That is the game. There is a lot of money in that industry going toward developing a high tech automobile. After that, the car industry then changes to incorporate that new technology.
So it’s basically leveraging these highly commercialized, highly financed sports to tweak and innovate technology at the most extreme level, and then translating those innovations to the open market to enhance the lives of everyday users?
Yes, and I’d like to see that happen in the rehabilitation and Paralympic space.
So building prosthetics for the Paralympics that are then made available to ordinary people?
Right. The Paralympics used to be focused around rehabilitation, and no one was interested in watching those games. Recently though, that’s changing and the Paralympics are attracting more attention because the athletes are actually athletes. So that’s why I’d like to see that Lead User approach taken in the world of the Paralympics and the world of rehabilitation. That’s what’s missing and I want to make it happen.
Have you ever considered how far is too far when it comes to using technology to enhance human capability? Is there a “too far?”
Do you mind explaining that?
For instance, in the mythological story of Icarus, he invented wings that eventually failed him because he used them to fly too close to the sun. Is there a point where using technology to make humans more capable becomes unethical?
I see. That’s a fairly common topic of conversation in our field. Have you heard of Blake Leeper?
Blake Leeper is a double leg amputee, and he uses a very long running blade. He runs a 44.4 something 400m. Jarryd is a lot like him, but we feel that Blake’s running blade is too long. Some members of our team believe that he is able to run that fast because his blades are so long. In which case, that type of technology should not be allowed in the Paralympic Games.
Do you ever consider technologies such as AI or Virtual Reality as tools that could contribute to mobility in any way?
Yes, absolutely. I love technology and I’m a real believer in it.
Do you know of any ways some of these non-prosthetic technologies are being leveraged for mobility?
Genomics. We have a bunch of information in our bodies that we can’t fully access. We only have limited access to that information. For example, we have more than 500 muscles in our body. We currently can’t see the motion of all of these muscles at the same time. So one of the things we’re missing is detailed sensory technology. I’d like to see a sensor that can analyze that huge amount of information. It’s very hard for standard technology, so people are trying to come up with new technologies that are capable of this type of analysis. This type of detailed anatomical info is very limited at this point. We sometimes use motion capture technology to record some of this data, but even that technology is severely limited.
However, many people are working on methods to better find and record this data.
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