IM­PROV­ING AC­CES­SI­BIL­ITY: MEET THE EN­GI­NEER BE­HIND SELF-DRIV­ING WHEEL­CHAIRS

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - REPORT ON BUSINESS -

Cy­ber­works Ro­bot­ics CEO Vivek Burhan­purkar is pi­o­neer­ing the devel­op­ment of an ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent, self-driv­ing wheel­chair

LIKE EV­ERY OTHER KID COM­ING OF AGE IN THE

SEV­EN­TIES, Vivek Burhan­purkar ob­sessed over the Star Wars movies. Un­like most young fans, how­ever, he was less cap­ti­vated by The Force than with the forces con­trol­ling the non-hu­man char­ac­ters.

“Other kids loved the bat­tle scenes, the big ex­plo­sions. I wanted to un­der­stand, how did they make that ma­chine do that? And how could I do that?” says the now 55-year-old en­gi­neer and CEO of Cy­ber­works Ro­bot­ics, a Cana­dian ro­bot­ics com­pany pi­o­neer­ing the devel­op­ment of an ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent, self-driv­ing wheel­chair.

This idea of turn­ing sci­ence fic­tion into real world in­no­va­tion was a driv­ing force for Burhan­purkar from the be­gin­ning. At age three, he em­i­grated from In­dia to Ot­tawa with his par­ents, even­tu­ally land­ing in Oril­lia, On­tario. School came nat­u­rally and his par­ents hoped their aca­dem­i­cally-gifted son would go on to be a great doc­tor. But for Burhan­purkar, the goal was al­ways to do some­thing “com­pletely un­ex­pected”—some­thing that had never been done be­fore. And by age 19, he had achieved just that.

As an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Toronto, he wrote the world’s first ever the­sis pa­per on the use of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence for au­tonomous nav­i­ga­tion in a com­plex, un­ex­plored in­door en­vi­ron­ment. The ques­tion it an­swered, es­sen­tially, was how do you cre­ate a ro­bot that can nav­i­gate new in­door spa­ces the same way a hu­man would? To­day he jokes that he should have given the tech­nol­ogy a more mem­o­rable name, but if the word­ing is slightly awk­ward, the im­pli­ca­tions are awe-in­spir­ing.

He founded Cy­ber­works Ro­bot­ics in 1982. Ap­ply­ing the tech­nol­ogy he in­vented to wheel­chairs was an idea that came early on. “I had al­ways wanted to be in­volved in us­ing tech­nol­ogy to im­prove the lives of vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple,” he says. His dad was an oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist, so he had seen first-hand the frus­tra­tions and chal­lenges af­fect­ing peo­ple in wheel­chairs. At first he thought he had cre­ated a game-changer for in­di­vid­u­als whose dis­abil­i­ties make it dif­fi­cult or im­pos­si­ble to use a joy­stick, but later re­al­ized that al­most any­one in a wheel­chair could ben­e­fit.

“You can’t check your e-mails if you have to worry about bump­ing into some­thing—it’s about mak­ing life eas­ier, more con­ve­nient,” he says.

Hav­ing iden­ti­fied the mar­ket − to­day there are more than 5-mil­lion power wheel­chair users across North Amer­ica− the next chal­lenge be­came af­ford­abil­ity. It wasn’t so long ago that 3D-sens­ing cam­eras, es­sen­tial to Burhan­purkar’s prod­uct, re­mained pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. That all changed around the turn of the cen­tury with the ex­plo­sion of videogames, prompt­ing the mass pro­duc­tion of the same tech­nol­ogy and bring­ing the price tag down from $20,000 to $200.

In 2015, Cy­ber­works launched an in­dus­try-aca­demic part­ner­ship with the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Ap­plied Sci­ence & En­gi­neer­ing depart­ment. Last sum­mer, they col­lab­o­rated on a 12-week global in­tern­ship for a group of 31 stu­dents that in­cluded Burhan­purkar’s daugh­ter Maya, who is now study­ing physics and com­puter sci­ence at Har­vard.

When we dis­cuss the po­ten­tial pit­falls of A.I., he says the con­cerns are cir­cum­ventable, and the head­lines about a po­ten­tial rise of the ro­bots are more about grab­bing at­ten­tion.

As for find­ing in­spi­ra­tion in the more re­cent Star Wars movies, he has seen them, but for now, he’s fo­cused on find­ing in­vestors to bring his wheel­chair to mar­ket. “We’re stay­ing the course,” he says.

Vivek Burhan­purkar, CEO of Cy­ber­works Ro­bot­ics poses with a pro­to­type of his com­pany’s self-driv­ing wheel­chair at their Markham, Ont. of­fice.

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