FutureMed: the Intersection of Robotics and AI

Posted in Medical Computing by Brian Buntz on February 5, 2013
Dan Barry

A tsunami of innovation is coming to the field of robotics, explained Dan Barry, MD, PhD at FutureMed. Already, robotics are used for numerous medical applications. For instance, there is the SpineAssist, a robotic arm that enables accurate guidance during spine surgery. There is the famous da Vinci surgical robot from Intuitive Surgical as well as bedside robots. Roboticized prosthetic limbs now exist that offer functionality not found in humans, albeit without sensation. Also promising is the nascent field of brain computer interfaces, in which cortical signals that go into a brain implant and come out of the brain implant from thought.

“It is all about the sensors and perception. That is where we are right now in robotics,” Barry said. 

In general, the costs of robotics are sinking while their capabilities increase. For instance, a toy helicopter with some autonomous navigational ability is now available for under $20. Similar technology had a price tage of several thousand dollars a matter of years ago. The fact that such technology is so inexpensive clears the way for grad students and post docs to easily get their hands on it and research new applications.

Ultimately, artificial intelligence research and robotics must intersect, explained Dan Barry, MD, PhD at FutureMed. Barry, the co-chair for AI, robotics, space, and physical sciences at Singularity University has researched the use of robots to help rehabilitate injured patients. He also had a passion for building a machine that is self-aware. When he informed his wife, a neurobiologist, of the idea, she dismissed it. “You can’t build a brain in the box,” she said. The way brains evolved was based on movement, his wife told him. “Look around, look at the trees and then the rabbits. The animals move and the trees and the plants don’t,” she said. “Brains are about movement.” Reflecting on Rene Descartes’ statement that “I think, therefore I am,” Barry said: “Not quite. I move, therefore I think. I did Descartes one better.”

Barry went on to explain the importance of perception and emotion. “Emotion is also critical. We often think of emotion as something that gets in the way of logic. But it turns out that if you take away emotion, you also take away the ability to make decisions.”

“I move, therefore I have to perceive, I perceive, therefore I react, I react, needs to be modulated, so I emote,” he said. “Because I emote, then I can have intellect.”

“What is that makes something know it is alive? We don’t know the answer to that in biology.”

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.