Connect: Spring 2016

Robots for the people

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EY alum Henry Evans is the very definition of someone overcoming life’s obstacles. Despite facing extreme challenges, he has never stopped looking for answers — and he vows to share those answers with others like himself.

Henry is a mute quadriplegic. He can’t talk, can’t move from his bed without help — and hasn’t been able to do so for more than a decade. A stroke-like episode, caused by a rare birth defect, took his ability to move and speak back in 2002. Yet he has given three rousing TEDx talks, piloted a submersible, flown drones in Australia, toured a palace in South Korea, spoken in front of the U.S. Congress, and is even trying to work out a trip to outer space. To communicate, the former Silicon Valley CFO blinks his eyes or nods toward letters on an alphabet board.


Watch Henry Evans’ TED Talks


And all those things he’s done? They all happened via robots tailored for his use — including a “body surrogate,” a state-of-the-art machine that can do everything from shave a person 3,000 miles away, to pull up a blanket, to speak using a text-to-voice program. Unable to lift a finger or say anything, Henry has figured out a way to feel free.

A tireless creator and pioneer in adaptive robotic technology, he hopes his organization, Robots for Humanity, will transform life for the severely disabled. He wants to use technology to extend people’s capabilities and compensate for their weaknesses. He wants them to be able to tour museums, pull medication from a cabinet, fetch a glass of water, and go to work.

“I want to see that 21st century technologies are made available to everyone who can benefit from them, much like the wheelchair ramps of the 20th century were,” he said in an email interview with Connect. “At the end of the day, I want to see a level playing field for people in terms of their physical environment. Ideally, it would help them regain some of their independence and become more equal.” Building a better working world, indeed.

EY and the American Dream

Henry, born in St. Louis, graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1984, then earned his MBA from Stanford University. He joined EY’s Life Sciences practice, and then, three years later, became CFO of a Silicon Valley start-up. He was 40 and felt like life was just beginning. He had a good job, his four kids were doing well in school, and he and his wife, Jane, had just bought a house in Los Altos Hills/Palo Alto, California. He coached his boys in football and was active in the Boy Scouts.

But one day, as he was driving the kids to school, his speech slurred and his vision tunneled. Somehow, he managed to drop the kids off and get back up the six miles of winding road to his home. Once inside, he hugged the walls to stay upright, then told Jane he just wanted to hold her and go to sleep.

The episode

Instead, she insisted on calling the doctor. Later, in the ER, Henry’s right arm went limp, and he asked what was going on. Right before slipping into a coma, he said, “I’m scared.” It turns out the lining in his basilar artery had torn, blocking the blood flow to his brainstem.

“While I was in the coma, I spasmed so badly for three days that doctors locked me to the bed,” Henry said. “The locks were metal and cut into my skin; my wife made them pad the locks. My whole family flew in although I never realized it.” As he came to, on life support, he remembers Jane singing Phantom of the Opera songs to him — numbers he’d often played on the piano. She believes that people in a coma can hear and wanted to make sure he knew she was there.

Henry’s brain was unaffected, aside from some short-term memory loss, but his motor skills were gone. He found he could blink his eyes, but that was it. The nurses called him “the miracle,” and only then did he realize he’d almost died.

A determined voice

All these years later, Henry still can’t speak, though he can let out a laugh or cry. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a voice. To help him communicate, Henry’s brother Pete, an engineer, came up with the first plexiglass letterboard. A translator (usually Jane) reads out the letters, then Henry nods at the right one. It’s slow going but effective; he’s written a cookbook this way and launched a small winery that Jane runs.

It also gave him an idea.

What if, he thought, a head-mounted laser-pointer could operate switches across a room? He got in touch with a friend and former colleague who suggested they reach out to a robotics club at Palo Alto High School. The team designed the “Laserfinger” and won a US$10,000 grant from MIT to prototype it.

Robots for Humanity

Then, in 2010, Henry saw Georgia Tech Professor Charlie Kemp on CNN talking about work he’d done with a robotics firm called Willow Garage, and the two connected. The first time they met, Henry used a robot to pick up and pour out a can of Coke. Together with Steve Cousins, CEO of robotics company Savioke, and with the constant help of Henry’s wife, Jane, they cofounded Robots for Humanity.

Dr. Kemp eventually received a US$4.6 million, five-year research grant to develop the project at Georgia Tech, and the rest is Robots for Humanity history. The collaboration is made up of friends, family, professors and scientists around the country, who work with Henry on his ideas. “The name is a guidepost to engineers,” he says of the organization’s moniker. “Instead of building robots just to build robots, build them to help humanity.”

Thanks to new technologies these days, Henry has gone (virtually) to the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, coached his son’s football team with a speaking device, inspected the wine grapes around his house via a flying drone and done countless other things.

A robot named PR2 (“PR” for “personal robot”) lives with the Evanses as researchers continue to test how it can truly help caregivers. It’s so much part of the family now that even the dog, Amber, likes to sleep next to it.

In an ideal future world, Henry says, people could have working robot arms attached to their wheelchairs or even control electronic devices just by thinking about them. However the technology develops, he wants it to be cheap — everyone should have access to a better life, he says.

Building a better working world: then and now

“At EY, I primarily worked in Life Sciences, where our clients were attempting to improve lives, and now I am focused on using robotic technology to improve the lives of disabled people,” said Henry, who takes pride in his time with the firm. “That is the most obvious parallel between my time at EY and my life now — we’re both seeking to build a better working world. I enjoyed my tenure at EY and am proud of my association with the firm.”

Henry said he would also enjoy staying connected with his former EY colleagues and fellow alumni and can be reached at hevans1000@gmail.com. For more information on Robots for Humanity visit: http://r4h.org/.


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