Wayan Sutawan is being hailed as Indonesia’s very own Iron Man after building a robotic device that he claims can read signals from his brain allowing him to control his paralyzed left arm.
This seemingly impossible story started six months ago when Sutawan suffered a stroke that resulted in his left arm being paralyzed. Having dabbled in mechanical engineering in high school, the father-of-three spent the next couple of months working on a robotic arm using spare parts that he scavenged from his garage. He finally created a strap-on mechanism for his paralyzed limb connected to a headband that he claims could read his brainwaves and transmit commands.
In a video report by Indonesia’s Kompas TV, Sutawan is seen strapping the device on to his left arm and covering his left hand with a thick rubber glove. He then puts on the headband, and after a moment’s concentration, the arm miraculously jerks to life. He is then able to use the paralyzed hand to perform delicate tasks. He’s also able to lift up to 10 kilograms of weight with the device on his left arm.
The story has garnered a lot of attention on social media and other news networks, and raised a lot of scepticism among people. Many have come to the belief that his arm is not really paralyzed at all, and all he did was fashion the mechanical strap-on for his 15 minutes of fame or perhaps in hopes of monetary gain. Paralysis occurs when the brain cells that control a particular motor function are dead, and the brain can’t issue a command for that body part to move any more. So the idea that a headband can actually ‘read’ the brain’s signals and convey to them to the arm is rather implausible.
Others have other questions – assuming the headband could somehow detect brainwaves from dead brain cells – where did he store the processor needed to identify the brainwaves and translate them into mechanical motor functions? “How did he develop such sophisticated programming?” an Malaysian tech site SoyaCincau.com questions. “What kind of supercomputing power is being used to digest all that data?” Those are pertinent questions, especially since Sutawan makes a living as a simple welder.
The article continues to point out that “the glove that controls Tawan’s finger movements don’t have any actuators at all. So how could this contraption allow him to make the finger movements necessary to pick up and grip the solder in the video?” They think it’s more likely that Sutawan has a weak arm that needs some motorized help to function better, which is probably what the device is doing. “If you pay close attention to his left arm when he is inserting it into his mechanical contraption, you can see his wrist flick upwards before it enters his sleeve.”
In any case, Sutawan says that the robotic arm has helped him immensely – he was out of work only six months ago, but today, he’s able to support his wife and three children. “The tool is not perfect, but is tolerable and has helped me,” he said, humbly.
Check out the video of him demonstrating his mechanical arm below.