Mechanical Engineering Seminar


All models are wrong, simple models are insightful: A study of human manipulation


Dr. Michael West


Cambridge, MA


Wednesday, February 14, 2024 at 11:00:00 AM   


GTMI Building, Room Auditorium


Dr. Greg Sawicki


Humans possess a unique ability to manipulate tools to help us navigate the world around us. This ability is facilitated by the dexterity of our hands. Unfortunately, millions of individuals lose this capability annually due to conditions like limb amputation or Cerebral Vascular Accident. The development of robotic rehabilitation technologies, including prosthetics, exoskeletons, and therapeutic robots, aims to restore motor function to these individuals. However, comprehending the underlying control strategies employed by humans is crucial for the effective interaction and implementation of these technologies. Studying humans is a challenge due to the many degrees of freedom, redundant actuators, and intricate neural pathways. Simple models can help untangle this complexity. This talk will delve into the role of simple models in analyzing human neural motor control and perception through the study of upper-limb motion and hand manipulation. Specifically, I will explore a common simplification of human hand manipulation—the presence of kinematic hand synergies and highlight the necessity of studying functional hand manipulation beyond simple grasping. Moreover, I will present findings from both a motor control study and a motor perception study to construct a model of human motor control that emphasizes the importance of mechanical impedance. These insights have far-reaching implications, potentially improving existing robotic technologies and guiding the development of new ones. In sum, I aim to tackle the complexities of human motor control and explore the transformative potential of simple models in advancing the field of robotic rehabilitation.


Michael West Jr. is a sixth-year PhD Candidate in Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He earned his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Yale University in 2018 and a Master of Science from MIT in 2020. His research studies fundamentals of upper-limb human motor control for leverage in robotic devices including but not limited to rehabilitation robotics, collaborative robots, prosthetics, and dexterous robots. His innovative approaches to analyzing human motor control have yielded valuable insights into motor learning and perception, contributing to advancements in the field. For his work, he has been awarded the MIT OGE Diversity Fellowship, UCEM Sloan Scholarship, GEM University Associate Fellowship, Ford Foundation Fellowship, Ben Gold Fellowship, Takeda Fellowship, and Accenture Fellowship. In addition to his academic achievements, Michael has been a stalwart advocate for diversity and mentorship. This includes but is not limited to his previous positions as President of the National Society of Black Engineers Yale Chapter, Treasurer of the Academy of Courageous Minority Engineers at MIT, and Pod Leader for the MIT Summer Research Program. Looking ahead, Michael envisions a future where he continues to make lasting contributions to the robotics and human motor control fields and inspire the next generation of diverse STEM leaders.


Refreshments will be served.