Every March, tens of thousands of people from around the globe flock to Austin, Texas, to learn and connect over panels, parties and tacos at South By Southwest's interactive, film and music conferences. America Tonight's SXDiaries Q&A series highlights interesting and inspiring figures at SXSW.
Shiva Nathan is one of the brightest young innovators in America. A 16-year-old from Westford, Massachusetts, Nathan designed an award-winning prosthetic arm that can be moved using brain signals.
In an interview with America Tonight, Nathan discussed the future of prosthetics and the need for increased emphasis on STEM proficiency nationwide. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Take me back to the beginning. What made you think of this prosthetic arm?
In the fall of 2012, I learned about a cousin who had lost both of her arms in an accident. My family was telling me about how the arms she had weren’t very good. They were pretty basic. She could only wave them around and grab things. I figured I wanted to help her out and do something useful about that. I started trying to figure out how to build a better, cheaper prosthetic arm.
Modern prosthetics are pretty expensive and specialized, costing as much as a car in some cases; $25,000 for a higher class of prosthetic. I had this headset my uncle had bought me, as I had been big on programming video games. The headset tracks the user’s brainwaves. I thought it would be a perfect, low-cost solution, as it was only a couple hundred dollars. There was a small open source community around it. It got me thinking, “Why couldn’t I use this to help develop prosthetics?”
(Watch Nathan explain the project ahead of the 2014 Google Science Fair.)
What are some of the challenges that you and other young STEM innovators face?
The lack of a proper support structure. I didn’t do it all by myself. I had a mentor. I had my dad help me get all the parts I needed. There were people around me who helped me build the prosthetic and gave me the tools and knowledge to build this thing. I feel like a lot of these would-be, young innovators may not have that support structure.
I’m doing a little bit of work myself to help build those support structures. I worked with a local technical school in my district and donated some equipment I won in a contest to their STEM initiative. I’m in talks with them to develop a makers’ space. The makers’ spaces have the equipment and tools, and attract the talent. I want to try and create this space that will attract this kind of talent.
Being so young, how do you manage expectations from others – and from yourself?
I try not to give myself a swelled head. I try to keep this work on the down low. When I do show people, I want to show them real, tangible results that they can see. What I try to do is not brag about it too much. I just try to make sure that when I do talk about it that I try to talk about it in a measured way.
You’ve talked about wanting to make this prosthetic project of yours an open source project available to anyone. What’s the reasoning behind it and what do you hope it would accomplish?
Part of it is a philanthropic desire and part of it is out of practicality. Some of the software I use is itself open source, so I can’t exactly patent all that. I figure, “Why not just go all the way and make the entire thing open source?”