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.
“I had always wanted to be involved in using technology to improve the lives of vulnerable people.”
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.
This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.