Every day, Dexter Ang was growing more frustrated as he watched his mother deal with the indignities of ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. She was diagnosed with it in 2014.
The progressive disease attacks nerve cells that control muscles throughout the body. Over time – for many, anywhere from a year to decades – it robs people of their ability to walk, to use their arms and hands, to talk and ultimately, to breathe independently.
Ang had been working in Chicago in the financial world of high-frequency trading before his mother was diagnosed. He decided to move to Boston to help take care of her. Over the course of a year, there were fewer activities she could do with her hands. Eventually, she couldn’t use utensils to eat. She couldn’t dress herself. And she couldn’t maneuver the mouse to use her laptop, which she relied on for reading e-books from the library.
“I asked her when the last time was that she had read a book, and she said six weeks — because she couldn’t click a mouse,” Ang says. “That just made me tremendously sad, because that was one of the only things that she could still enjoy, and that was just gone.”
Ang, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a degree in mechanical engineering, spent months meeting with experts and poring over information about existing technologies to see if there were any that could help his mother.
“Ultimately, a lot of it was not useful — it was complicated and not well-designed,” he says. He credits his mother for inspiring him with a question she asked: What if a person could use their nerve signals to help control a mouse?
Ang wanted to learn more, returned to MIT as a graduate student and co-founded Pison Technology. The company, one of the AI for Accessibility grantees, is developing a nerve-sensing wearable, similar in appearance to a watch, to control digital devices using small, micro-movements of the hands and arms.
“Our proprietary technology can sense nerve signals on the surface of the skin,” Ang says. “Our machine-learning algorithms can classify those voltage signals into discernable actions,” such as simulating a mouse click to help interact with a computer.
In 2016, the ALS Association awarded an ALS Assistive Technology prize to Ang and Pison co-founder David Cipoletta.