As a child, Mark Pollock developed his love for adventure from Amelia Earhart, the first woman aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. And like his heroine, Mr Pollock – who has lost his sight and mobility – hopes to use technology to break new ground.
“People who do things for the first time don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Mr Pollock said at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on Saturday.
The Irishman, 43, whose goal is to cure paralysis, gave a speech about the intersection between human beings and technology – how humans can not only use technology to regain function, but also to improve it.
Mr Pollock became blind when he was 22 but did not allow his disability to hinder his dreams of becoming an athlete, running marathons across the Gobi Desert with a sighted partner.
In 2009 he was part of a team that trekked 770 kilometres to the South Pole, becoming the first blind man to do so.
But a year later, only weeks before his wedding, Mr Pollock fell from an open window, injuring his spine and becoming paralysed from the hip down.
“Friends who found me thought I was dead. Doctors in intensive care suspected I was going to die.
“I fractured my skull, had three bleeds in my brain and had a mass of internal injuries and couldn’t feel anything below my hip,” he said.
“I lost my sight in 1998 and I was trying to understand how I should respond to that challenge. When I had my spinal cord injury, I thought how should I face this double challenge?
“There simply is no cure. The choices for people in wheelchairs are not there.
“The end game of the story is that you have an accident, with particular damage to your spinal cord, you end up in a wheelchair and that is where you stay.”
But science and technology could change that, he said.
“When you acquire a disability it changes your identity entirely. On the one hand, I had to accept a wheelchair as does everyone who is in a wheelchair. But technology and different disciplines are providing hope that things may be different.”
Mr Pollock is a founding member of The Druids Collective, an initiative that pairs investors with start-ups to allow such technology to move out of laboratories and into the mainstream.
His dream is to walk again and he has turned to Olivier Oullier, president of Emotiv, to fulfil it.
Emotiv, a bio-informatics and technology company, is developing mobile and wearable, personalised technology that uses brain signals to direct function.
On Saturday, the forum was shown a video of Mr Pollock being strapped into robotic legs and trying to walk.
“It’s a very advanced piece of technology and to stand upright feels psychologically and mentally better.
“I feel squashed in the chair but feel stretched out and level with everyone when standing,” he said.
Prof Oullier began mapping Mr Pollock’s neural activity five years ago to study how he was able to stay motivated when many with his disability gave up.
“Mark is obsessed with walking again. Beyond the motivation, there is the motor function,” Prof Oullier said.
“His obsession with walking again morphed into ‘I want to cure paralysis’.”
Prof Oullier is working on technology that will replace legs or hands and add greater function.
“I am working with students who created a robotic hand, but the hand can do more than a normal hand. The hand is more powerful than a normal hand and opens more possibilities,” he said.
“It could very well be that robotic legs, thanks to stimulation, will allow Mark to walk. But in the near future he might even be able to jump, and higher than other people.”