Christopher Shallal, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology PhD program, and a research assistant in The Biomechatronics Group of MIT’s Media Lab, specializes in neural interfacing and control system design. A double amputee since birth, Shallal—a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and Alfred P. Sloan 2021-2022 Scholar—investigates prostheses and ways to improve the human-machine interface. Projects that he’s worked on at MIT include biomechanical modeling, myoelectric control of prostheses, and developing new exoskeleton controllers. During the Dana Center planning stage McGovern tours, he gave a presentation and demo about neuroprosthetics.
Q: What did you get out of your time with the sixth graders during the McGovern Tours?
Christopher Shallal: The type of work I do, brain-computer interfaces (BCI’s), is an up-and-coming field, similar to AI. Also similar to AI, there’s a lot of hype about it. In entertainment and the media, it’s portrayed as [the stuff of] superheroes, Ironman, and whatnot. What I found really rewarding about the tours—the first wide-scale demo and educational outreach that I’ve done— was being able to get beyond the hype; to take the students behind the curtain to show them the actual work we do and how it really works.
Seeing how the sixth graders understood the BCI’s when the day started, and how their perspective shifted during the conversations we had after our presentation,and when I was doing demos, was helpful for me. Beforehand, they saw BCI’s as things that makes you more powerful; super-hero type stuff. But with our presentation and in the discussion afterwards, we showed how a lot of this technology can be used, and is being used right now, for good, to help people with disabilities. But there are broader implications for it, too, of course—and at the end of our presentation we posed questions about who should have access to this type of tech normally. We’d shown the students some videos of people using BCI’s while they played video games—using the devices for entertainment. And they said, “We should give this technology for people who are paralyzed or a have a disability first.” They though using it for entertainment should come second.
Other students were concerned about what will happen when the BCI technology gets better than just a normal human brain, or body. One wanted to know, “What happens when a robber has a robotic hand and can smash down a door?”
They had some really interesting questions, a number of which came up when we had the students design their own BCI’s. One student had an idea for an implant that would go into the brain of someone who couldn’t talk and translate the user’s thoughts onto a screen. But the student said, “Wait, how do I make sure there is a privacy setting? The screen shouldn’t show all of the person’s thoughts. I need a privacy setting or this implant will read people’s minds.”
Even though they were sixth graders, they really connected with a lot of the ethical questions. For instance, one student had an idea for basketball shoes, an exoskeleton that would help players jump higher. And another student said, “Wouldn’t that be considered cheating?
The question of cheating is one that has already come up around prosthetics, because of Oscar Pistorius [the professional sprinter who was the first double-leg amputee to participate in the Olympics]. He was eventually banned from participating in the Olympics because his carbon fiber legs were considered an advantage. My mentor at MIT, Hugh Herr, did a lot of research to show Pistorius’s prostheses weren’t actually an advantage. But we’ll be at an inflection point in society very soon where we’ll consider robots equal or better to us physically. We’re going to have to think about that.
Q: What’s your biggest concern in terms of the ethical implications of your work?
Christopher Shallal: Accessibility.
As an amputee myself I have really benefited throughout my twenty-three years from technology. But there are still a lot of people who aren’t able to benefit from the technology because it’s not accessible and affordable.
I got a taste of what that might be like a few years ago, when my health insurance, which had always covered my prostheses, said, “Actually we don’t think we’re going to pay for your legs any more. You’re better off on crutches or in a wheelchair.” I learned that the company was denying a lot of other amputees their coverage too. After a class-action suit was filed against them, they backed off.
So while I think a lot of the work I do now is good because it’s pushing the envelope of the field—we’re asking, for example, if we can restore someone’s limb functionality with a robot—it also means we have to ask when the technology will be widely available, and who will benefit. I think it’s really important to make people realize that while there is so much amazing technology out there, and being developed, there is still a lot of work to be done to make it accessible and affordable—especially when insurance companies, even now, will do what mine did.
Q: Would you be interested in helping people realize that as part of work you might do at a possible Dana Center for Neuroscience & Society at the MIT Museum? What if you had two years to work on a project there?
Christopher Shallal: : If I had two years, I could do a lot of outreach in terms of showing people where the technology is really at, right now. The museum is a great opportunity for a person to come in and hear a presentation or see a demo and realize, “This is closer than I thought.” And I think with an older audience, it would be very helpful to discuss, “How do we make this technology accessible for everyone? And affordable?” Because affordability is a big hurdle. Insurance companies and the government, even today, are very slow to accept new technologies, and maybe that’s because they don’t understand the research being done, the benefits, or what the technology can do for someone. In our lab we do a lot of work on proving that a better robotic foot improves someone’s walking speed, or enables them to go up and down the stairs. But there is a gap in education. The insurance companies don’t understand; the government doesn’t understand.
A big question I think about with my research is: How can I be sure this can be used by a lot of people? That’s a question not just of the engineering behind the devices that I’m working on but also of how society views the technology. A lot of people view it favorably, yes, but there is also the issue of the cost-benefit ratio. People in government, health insurance, and in society still struggle with that.
Q: You’re a mentor with the Sloan-MIT University Center for Exemplary Mentoring. Was there a confluence between your interest in mentoring and your interest in participating in the McGovern Tours?
Christopher Shallal: A lot of people have helped me along the way to get to MIT, and I like giving back and helping people reach MIT, specifically those who are underrepresented, especially those who might have physical disabilities. My journey to MIT was really hard and I like helping people get to where they want to get as well. And a lot of the time when I was a kid and I was waiting for my prosthetics to get built, the prosthetist would let me go into the fabrication lab and see how the prosthetics were made. Seeing that, and how people could control their limbs, left a really big impression on me. So showing kids this different kind of technology and how they could work on it is something I wanted to do, to give back to people.
Photography by Emma Skakel