Friday, February 29, 2008


As Daniela Rus sees it, the future is chockablock with robots.

Personal robots to handle household chores and remind us to take our medicine -- increasingly important needs, given the aging world. Industrial robots that perform dangerous or tedious jobs we’d rather avoid. Robot cars that drive themselves.

How about a robot system to keep cows where they belong? Or systems that produce “programmable matter” in a fashion that sounds like generating something from nothing?

All on or over the horizon, says Rus (photo), a personable robotmaker who doubles as co-director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s Center for Robotics, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among other posts.

She toured the robotic future on Feb. 28 at Duke as the latest speaker in the Provost’s Lecture Series, which this year examines “On Being Human.” Look here for a robot who's who.

Her talk fit right in, as a number of Duke researchers are exploring ways to advance robotics and expand human-machine interfaces. For example, neuroscientist Dr. Miguel Nicolelis recently reported research in which a monkey used its brain to control the real-time walking of a robot half way around the world (see video here). And biomechanical engineers led by Stephen Smith have shown that a 3-D ultrasound scanner they developed can successfully guide a surgical robot.

In her lab, Rus and assorted students are developing a robotic system for underwater observation (photo). The’ve tested AMOUR -- Autonomous Modular Optical Underwater Robot -- in various locations, including French Polynesia (shown in a video accompanied by the singing crab in The Little Mermaid.)

They also are developing a flying gizmo for observing hard-to-reach spots, demonstrated in video of the tiny craft buzzing about the Vatican.

So the book on robots is hot. But for now, Rus says, robots expressing emotions remains on the science-fiction shelf.

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