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Canada-based Zimbabwean receives first AI-powered bionic arm

by Kevin Jiang
21 May 2023 at 08:15hrs | Views
Growing up in Zimbabwe missing part of her left arm, something like a bionic limb replacement was "beyond imagining" for her and most others who needed them.

Now, after finally receiving her first functional prosthetic at age 44, the Ontario-based entrepreneur and "full-time mom" says her life will never be the same.

"Before, I was just living my life as a limb-different woman with no prosthetic arm, doing what I could to have a normal life," Muscutt, who lives in the Kawartha Lakes area, told the Star. "Life after SmartArm? Mind-blowing. I kept finding things that I never thought I needed (another) arm to do."

Muscutt is the very first recipient of a SmartArm, a 3D-printed, vision-powered bionic arm developed by a Toronto startup company and controlled by Microsoft's Azure AI. Not only is the prosthetic several times cheaper than similar competitors, its creators say it's the first arm that can "think and see" for itself using a built-in camera and machine learning algorithms.

"SmartArm is a perfect example of how people can leverage artificial intelligence for good," said Hamayal Choudhry, the 25-year-old founder and CEO of SmartArm, in an interview with the Star. "(Our goal is to) make arms that are not only accessible and affordable for people, but actually functional and powerful as well."

Hamayal Choudhry, left, is the 25-year-old founder and CEO of SmartArm. The company started as a passion project with his friends, but it's turned into a career after an endorsement from Microsoft. He stands next to Evan Neff, the company's co-founder and chief product officer. SUPPLIED

The SmartArm's hand features five articulated fingers that can move individually, mounted on a rotatable wrist, Choudhry said. A small camera set in the palm can identify the shape and characteristics of any object its user tries to pick up; this information is then fed to Microsoft's AI, which co-ordinates the fingers and wrist to naturally grab or manipulate the item, according to its user's command.

"When someone who has a flesh arm goes to pick something up, you don't necessarily think about the individual little muscle fibres you need to fire in order to pick it up correctly — you just sort of do it," Choudhry said. "That's the purpose of our AI control system. The hand thinks and acts for you, so you don't have to."

The prosthetic is now available for pre-order and can cost up to $15,000, Choudhry said. In comparison, similar functional prosthetics with individually moving fingers can start at "$60,000, $70,000 or more," he continued.

"The response has been overwhelming. We have had people register from all different parts of the world — the U.S., Canada, the U.K.," Choudhry said, though he couldn't share exact numbers. "It shows the problem is not just limited to any one geographical area — people around the world feel similarly frustrated about the gap in the (prosthetics) market."

The price point was a major reason Muscutt went with SmartArm — "I couldn't afford anything else," she said, adding that in Canada and around the world, functional prosthetics are not covered by most insurance and public health plans.

"A lot of people end up having to mortgage their houses if they need (a functional prosthetic), because the only way to get it is to pay out of pocket."

Although Muscutt tried using a basic prosthetic before — an arm that wasn't articulated or powered — she soon gave it up. It felt heavy, clunky and "didn't look like something that belonged on my body," she said.

"That's the difference, because once I put the SmartArm on, I felt one with it. It's a cohesive relationship, it feels like it's always been there," she said. "I'm still learning how to use it, but for me, it's more than just about the arm.

"To be able to put this fantastic tool on me and walk around, I mean, that just does so much for someone's self-esteem.

Source - Toronto Star