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.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Faculty Bloggers: Hello?

Where are the faculty bloggers?

That’s a question we’ve been asking around Duke -- and it turns out others are wondering the same thing.

A recent posting in the blog Evolgen cast a broad net, asking for readers to rat out faculty in their own fields who have set up camp in the blogosphere. This blog covers evolutionary genetics, and it cited seven faculty (limited to principle investigators of an active research lab) who blog about their research.

But, the blog added, there must be more in this and other fields, right? Right?

One commenter suggested the apparent paucity of faculty bloggers may be greatest among the higher-ups, as there seem to be more bloggers among postdocs and grad students. In fact, at Duke we’ve ferreted out a number of such bloggers, along with blogging undergraduates, as noted in the DukeResearch blogroll.

Might it be, as another commenter suggests, that “a research professional is better off spending the time on his or her investigations, not at the keyboard writing new posts”?

Not so, responds Jonathan Eisen (photo), a professor at the University of California, Davis, Genome Center:

I have found that blogging is one of the best ways to communicate my research. I get more people finding out about what my lab does and what I am interested in from my blog than from papers, or from presentations at conferences. In addition, research results can be communicated to the public and in my opinion should be.

Even with a baby onboard, Eisen is now expanding his blogging as the new academic editor at the open access journal Public Library of Science.

So, we’re still looking for Duke faculty bloggers to highlight. And with summer coming up, when scads of faculty take to the field, blogging opportunities should blossom.

Hint, hint.