Sergei Semaikin sits motionless in his wheelchair, wearing a tight cap with wires poking out from the holes in it and leading to a small black box fixed to the cap at the base of his skull. On the computer screen in front of him, a cartoon figure runs, jumps and ducks its way across the screen – controlled by Semaikin, who has not so much as raised an eyebrow.
Sergei Semaikin (left) controls the movements of an on-screen figure using his mind. Photo: Sk.ru.
Semaikin represents one of the six Russian teams preparing to take part in the world’s first Cybathlon, a competition for disabled people who use assistive technologies, which will take place in Zurich on October 8. Unlike the Paralympic Games, the Cybathlon does not focus on athletic performance, but on robotic assistance devices and how they help people in their everyday lives.
The discipline Semaikin is training for is brain-computer interface (BCI). BCIs are devices that enable communication without movement by using signals from the central nervous system, and can be used to communicate by severely disabled people who cannot use a computer, for example.
Demonstrating his skills at a media event at the Skolkovo innovation centre on Monday at which the Russian teams showed off their prowess ahead of the competition, Semaikin explained to Sk.ru how he controls the movements of the character on the screen using his mind.
“It’s a state of the brain,” he says. “I can switch off instantly, as if there is no one else here. I can concentrate on a certain point or make my vision general, or I can perform certain actions. When I put that cap on, I can turn the light on and off by blinking, or the air conditioner on and off by clenching my teeth. But that’s all banned at the Cybathlon – it means instant disqualification. You have to get into a state where you don’t show your external state, it’s has to be what’s inside your head that influences the player running along the screen.”
Semaikin, who is training simultaneously for the Cybathlon and the upcoming World Para-Karate Championships, has only been practising for the BCI race for about two months. The intense concentration required is very tiring, he said.
“After the sessions I’d go to sleep really quickly, using meditation techniques, and at about 3 or 4 in the morning I’d wake up and my mind would be racing. As a result of the training sessions, you start thinking much faster and making decisions faster; your brain activity increases,” he said.
Semaikin will compete in the Cybathlon using technology developed by a company named Neurobotics, which will also demonstrate its exoskeleton – a wearable machine that helps disabled people to walk again – at the event.
Alexander Pankratov practising for the arm event at the Cybathlon with his Kleiber Solo prosthesis. Photo: Sk.ru.
The tasks being performed by the other teams preparing for the Cybathlon are less mystifying to watch, but no less challenging. Russia has two teams competing in the powered arm prosthesis race, both using technology designed by resident startups of the Skolkovo Foundation.
During the training session, Alexander Pankratov used a bionic arm with individually operated robotic fingers to guide a loop on a handle around a twisting piece of metal, attempting not to touch the metal with the loop. His arm was developed by Kleiber Bionics, which makes myoelectric arms that respond to electrical impulses generated by the wearer’s remaining muscle tissue.
Close by, Konstantin Deblikov practised for another part of the Cybathlon’s powered arm “racetrack” by using his myoelectric Stradivary arm to move an assortment of variously shaped and sized objects from one table to another. It may sound simple, but picking up small or very narrow objects are among the trickiest tasks faced by users of prosthetic arms.
“It’s dexterity that takes time: it takes me several minutes longer to do up buttons or shoelaces than it would take the average person,” Deblikov, who had both of his hands amputated following a pyrotechnics accident in 2014, told Sk.ru.
On the other side of the room, Dmitry Ignatov, a TV presenter on Moskva-24 and the sports channel Match TV, demonstrated how he is training for the powered leg prosthesis race in Zurich with his Metiz Hyperknee. Made by a company called Orto-Kosmos that has been making prostheses for the last 25 years, the Hyperknee consists of a hydraulic knee joint and carbon fibre reinforced plastic foot.
Its advantages equal those of electronic knees, according to Stepan Golovin, the team’s leader: it enables the wearer to bend and straighten the knee quickly, and vary the speed of their pace, for example – but the hydraulic knee does not have electronic knees’ disadvantages of needing to be charged and requiring batteries.
The hardest thing to do with an artificial knee is usually going up and down stairs, said Ignatov, marching with apparent ease up and down a small block of steps. Ignatov, who lost his leg while serving in the army, said he is training three or four times a week in preparation for the Cybathlon.
“So far, the most difficult thing for me [in training for the powered leg racecourse] is when you have to step over obstacles and bend down at the same time – it’s like a labyrinth with barriers above and below you,” he told Sk.ru.
Steps are no problem for the Metiz Hyperknee, as demonstrated by TV presenter Dmitry Ignatov. Photo: Sk.ru.
Many of the devices being used by Russian teams at the event are still at the testing stage, and their developers also want to use the international event to see how their devices compare to world-class benchmarks.
“Our main task right now, including at the Cybathlon, is to test several models and choose which one is the best in terms of functionality and cost and usefulness in everyday life,” said Ilya Chekh, head of Motorica, which makes the Stradivary and which organised a Russian cybathlon in August.
Motorica’s main area of activity is functioning prostheses for children, and the Stradivary is still under development. The company, a resident of Skolkovo’s biomed cluster, says its arm should be several times cheaper than foreign equivalent models when it is launched on the market.
“We’re not looking to make the most complex one; it should be simple and allow people to carry out all the everyday tasks they need to,” said Chekh. “The Cybathlon will help us to gauge whether our prosthesis is ready for the market.”
Deblikov, who is helping Motorica to refine their product by testing it for them, said he liked the arm’s control systems and how it responds.
“The strength of it [the grip] needs adjusting, but we’re working on that,” he told Sk.ru. “I hope in the near future we’ll have something close to a final version. It’s a lot lighter than some foreign prostheses, so it will be more comfortable for users to wear,” said Deblikov, who uses several different brands of prosthetic bionic hands, including those made by leading British and German companies.
Konstantin Deblikov uses his Stradivary hand to pick up and move a range of objects. Photo: Sk.ru.
Ignatov, who has been using various prosthetic legs for four years, said at the start of Monday’s event that he would like Russia to make prostheses on a level with – or even better than – foreign models.
He said that he usually uses electronic knees, and that of the non-electronic prostheses he has tried, the Hyperknee, which is also still at the testing stage, was one of the best.
“We don’t know who our competitors will be, but we know the market leaders who will be taking part and presenting their gadgets,” said Ignatov. “And we think ours is just as good.”
Flying the flag
The Russian teams taking part in the Cybathlon – which also aims to draw attention to the needs of disabled people and encourage developers to work on new technology – are being sponsored by Russian development institutes, including the Skolkovo Foundation and Russian Venture Company (RVC), which hope that the devices will prove they have potential for success on international markets.
Yevgeny Kovnir, deputy director for the young professionals department of the Agency for Strategic Initiatives, another state body supporting participation in the Cybathlon, said it is an achievement in itself to be competing in five of the six disciplines at the event. The only area Russia is not represented in is the functional electrical stimulation (FES) bike race, in which electrodes are placed on an athlete’s skin and a current applied to the muscles, causing them to contract and allowing disabled people to initiate movement via an intelligent control device.
“Of all the countries taking part, only a few are represented on such a broad scale,” said Kovnir.
“We’re counting on our products to pass the test of international competition, because there will be a lot of players from different countries. We will see what the situation is, whether we are leaders or whether we still have a lot of work to do,” he added.
Team Russia: the people preparing to demonstrate their cyborg skills at the Cybathlon next month. Photo: Sk.ru.
Although the focus of the Cybathlon is not on winning, both the Russian competitors and tech experts are confident that Russia will give a strong performance in Zurich.
Alexander Kaplan, a psychophysiology expert and professor who founded Russia’s first BCI lab, said the level of the technology in Russia is on a par with the rest of the world.
Albert Yefimov, head of the Skolkovo Foundation’s Robocentre, agreed.
Russia is “a strong contender in brain-computer interface, because we are really good at maths. All the theoretical questions about how to read the signal [from the brain] have been resolved around the world. The next question is how to separate the signal from noise, and this is an area we’re good at,” Yefimov told Sk.ru.
The robotics expert said the Cybathlon is a good illustration of the idea that technology should enhance human ability.
“Competition between man and machine is pointless: it will always end in the victory of the machine,” he said.
“Now the most important task faced by all of us is to learn how to create technology that will not help man to compete with machines or robots, but to join forces with them,” said Yefimov.