Ken Goldberg is a professor, philosopher, engineer and artist.

Ken Goldberg is both an engineer and an artist and it is through a combination of these two, though ostensibly mutually exclusive disciplines, that he has been able to advance the field of robotics so radically.

Goldberg says, “They (art and engineering) build around each other in a constructive way. You have these two phases that you go back and forth between and they challenge each other in interesting ways.”

Take for example the Telegarden: created back in the mid-1990s when the internet started to flourish, it was a robotic arm that could be controlled by the online community to water flowers and plant seeds. By accessing the website users were able to watch the robot at work and see the garden grow.

Humans as a species are getting smarter because we are able to share information much quicker and build on innovations faster, robots have that potential as well

Telegarden was intended as an art installation but, Goldberg says, “One thing that we didn’t expect was that there was a lot of interest from the engineering community. It ended up becoming a sub area of robotics called Networked Robots. I organized a technical sub-committee on Networked Robots. We had hundreds of members and it is still alive now online.”

Ken Goldberg speaks passionately about what we can learn from robots during his TED talk.

Rise of Networked Robots

As the internet becomes ever more quick and easy to access Goldberg believes we are going to see a ‘paradigm shift in robotics’ as increasingly robots use the web to help them operate – this is known as Cloud robotics.

“Steve Cousins, who is the CEO of the robot company Willow Garage, says, ‘No robot is an island’. It is a beautiful observation because we have always thought of robots as having to have all their processing and data on board but the new realization, in almost every context, is that robots will have Wi-Fi access. When they see an object, for example, they could take a picture an send that to the Cloud, have it indexed on the web where we can find out the name of the object, the shape of the object, the function of the object, its full CAD model and all kinds of history about that object.”

As well as this, robots will be able to learn from each other’s experiences and share information. If robots were developed to clean houses, one could learn the environment of an individual house it was cleaning, what to clean and where to put items away. It could then pass this information on to another robot.

Goldberg says, “Just in the same way as humans as a species are getting smarter because we are able to share information much quicker and build on innovations faster, robots have that potential as well.”

Golberg has been doing research into the medical applications of robotics, including robot-assisted surgery. The Da Vinci robot has already been developed by Intuitive Surgical, which allows surgeons to operate remotely, away from the patient. It is called teleoperation and the surgeon moves consoles that in turn activate robotic arms with tools to conduct the surgery. Goldberg is keen to introduce more automation into robot-assisted surgery. He has been working on Raven, the open-source surgical robot. “The idea is that the robot could be more than an instrument, operating at a distance but actually act as an assistant to the surgeon. There are routine and tedious tasks like suturing that actually take up a large fraction of the time the surgeon is operating.”

Robots that help society

With this in mind, Goldberg has been working on an open-source surgical robot called Raven. As it is open-source, scientists and engineers around the world have access to the codes, software and data. Goldberg is currently trying to make Raven carry out autonomous surgery. He says, “What we encountered was that it is very hard to programme robots to do something like suturing so we did an experiment with humans training a robot. Essentially the robot observed human motions and then inferred them using statistical machine learning. The preliminary results are really exciting.”

On top of this, Goldberg has also been developing robotic technology to help in cancer treatment. There is a procedure for certain types of cancer that involves implanting radioactive seeds into areas of the body affected by a malignant tumour.

Essentially the robot observed human motions and then inferred them using statistical machine learning. The preliminary results are really exciting

Goldberg says, “There are a lot of sophisticated tools for imaging the body and computing the locations of these radioactive seeds – essentially how to optimally place them. However, it is very difficult actually delivering the seeds to the correct points in the body.”

More than just a toy

Currently the needles are inserted through a plate with evenly space holes. Goldberg, in conjunction with doctors at the University of California, San Francisco and engineers at Johns Hopkins University, are building a robot that can allow the needles to come in at different angles so that the ‘seeds’ can reach the exact position in the body and avoid delicate organs.

It is this kind of advance in robotics that could benefit society so profoundly. For many, robots are perceived as simply playthings, mere toys designed to show off scientific and engineering prowess but when one sees their practical applications as shown by Goldberg, it heralds a truly exciting and important future for artificial intelligence.


Watch Ken Goldberg’s TED talk – 4 lessons from robots about being human


For more information on Ken Goldberg click here:


Photo Credits: Bart Nagel and Ira Serkes.


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