March 1, 2014

Robot Research at the University of Washington

The Tech Policy Lab was proud to sponsor the 2014 Winter Scholars’ Studio: Robot Research @ the Commons. Scholars’ Studio is an opportunity for graduate students and postdocs to do 5 minute lightning talks describing their research. Imagine trying to explain what may have taken five years to develop for a dissertation in under 5 minutes. We had nine presenters whose topics ranged from surgical robots to robot pets and a robotic hurricane sailboat. It was truly an interdisciplinary event, with students from subjects you might expect such as electrical engineering and aeronautics but also English, Linguistics and Queer Studies.

The event began with a helpful introduction to current robot topics by Julie Cook, Engineering Information Services Librarian. We heard about intelligent robots from Yangming Li, a postdoctoral researcher in UW’s Biorobotics Lab. He illustrated what robots are capable of and explained why it is time to endow surgical robots with the ability to solve more complex problems.

David Shean, made quite an impression by bringing his quadcopter in to share with the audience. He plans to use a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle aka drone) to track changes in glacier ice. Prior to his UAV creation he had to rely on satellite images and flying over locations by plane. His goal is to build an aircraft capable of flying autonomously for up to 20 km while snapping detailed geotagged photographs of the Earth’s surface. The photo shows his first successful attempt at an inexpensive aircraft, a Blade 350 QX Quadcopter with a digital camera attached by rubber bands and zip ties.

The English and Linguistics departments were also well represented. From Lilly Campbell we learned Rhetorical Lessons from Robotic Patients. Lilly explained that the role of simulated patients in shaping medical discourse has not been given enough consideration; robotic patients have the potential to call our attention to new ways of gesture and to see machines as sites for emotional attachments by humans.

Linguistics may not be the first issue that comes to mind when thinking of robots, but Brent Woo described how we take it for granted that humans talk to their computers effortlessly in sci-fi shows, they have seamless, natural conversations. But in reality we are far from that kind of ability, as Brent put it, if you teach a robot to talk he will want some linguistics.

The Tech Policy Lab’s own Tamara Bonaci explained the dynamics of secure telerobotics. With a surgeon in one location using a remote surgical robot somewhere else to perform surgery, teleoperated robotic systems may be the surgery of the future. The danger is that communication networks between robots and operators can be compromised. Tamara is working on tools to prevent these threats through monitoring, detection and failure correction using options like a unique operator signature.

How great would it be to have the company of a pet without having to feed or clean up after it? Amanda Lazar from Biomedical Informatics and Medical Education is studying ways to engage older adults in activities to improve wellness and mental health. Robotic pets are one approach that may introduce the same benefits as live pets while avoiding some of the challenges, as well as introducing technological capabilities such as artificial intelligence, sensing, and monitoring that can further enhance quality of life for older adults. Some robot pets already exist, like Paro the seal, and studies done with Paro already show benefits in older adults.

Andreas von Flotow introduced us to a robotic hurricane sailboat. Collecting hurricane data is dangerous and expensive because it requires a plane to fly into the area and drop a single use data collector. Andreas is designing a sailing spar that would be wind-propelled, energy independent and have autonomous navigation and would eliminate the need for the expensive and dangerous flight into a hurricane zone.

When we think of databases and artificial intelligence many presume it is unbiased information, but as Sean Jarvisexplained, the reading and interpretation of that information brings in the biases of the reader. Sean works at the intersection of queer theory, science and technology studies and in addition to questioning the queerness of the cyborg, he is using research into the relationship between the archive and the database to open the question of the role of the historian in the digital age.