The Union of Mind and Machine

I recently witnessed an extraordinary moment in history — the melding of mind and machine. I watched a person with quadriplegia fly a plane, and an amputee named Johnny fist bump and shake hands using a fully articulated robotic arm.

Johnny Matheny and His Thought Controlled Robotic Arm

While science fiction warns that the union of mind and machine will end badly, I can tell you that I was mesmerized as I watched a chair-bound woman, her limbs completely immobilized, gleefully handle the flight simulator’s joystick via a direct connection to her brain. Once she completed a set of flight training and capability tests, she took the plane for a joy ride. The plane took off from Charles de Gaulle airport and slowly banked over the Arch de Triumph — it was both a triumphant and transcendent moment.

When asked how it felt, she smiled and said “I was flying. I wasn’t in this chair.” There was complete silence as the audience absorbed those words, and then the room erupted, applauding both this woman’s achievement and the incredible work done by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory team.

As remarkable as that moment was, the man that stole the show was Johnny Matheny, an amputee with a robotic left arm. As Johnny stood to address the audience and tell the story of his involvement in this research, he spoke with his arms and hands as eloquently as he talked to the crowd. Both arms moved as one, in natural fluid movements, and all controlled by thought.

I marveled at the engineering and the obvious benefit, but then Nick Smoot, the organizer of Coeur d’Alene’s annual Think Big Fest, interrupted the presentation to share with us a far more important message. Like Nick, I assumed that this arm was Johnny’s. What I discovered is that Johnny’s access to the arm is limited to specific research and demonstration tasks. Johnny fought back the tears as he explained, “At the end of the day, when it is time for the arm to come off, I go home and cry. Just cry. Because it feels like I lost my arm all over again. Every time.”

This time, we all cried with him.

While I was impressed by the engineering, I was moved by the humanity, by the sacrifice made by Johnny and others like him. These pioneers turn their challenges into extraordinary gifts for the rest of humanity knowing that they might never benefit personally. They give of their time, and pay the emotional price, knowing they might never personally benefit from the research.

We have a unique opportunity to change that. The brilliant minds behind this research have created The Starfish Foundation. They believe that the cost can be driven down dramatically, that Johhny can receive an arm he can keep, and that many more recipients will follow.

An IndieGoGo project has been created to help fund The Starfish Foundation, and the fundraising officially starts TODAY, September 5th, at 5:00 pm PST. The goal is to raise $20k in 24 hours and use that launch trajectory to gain national and even international attention.

You can help. Join me and many others supporting this effort, and mark your calendar for 5:00 pm, click on this link and make whatever donation you can afford so that Johnny can get an arm. Join me in saying “Johnny, Thanks for your commitment and sacrifice. Now, let’s go build more!”

Interested in learning more about Johnny and this project, check out the video currently being developed (password johnny).

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