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Lending your brain to a robot

The new VR system from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory could make it easy for factory workers to telecommute. Credit: Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL

Leonardo (daVinci) is a robot that has been in use for quite a while allowing surgeons to perform operations that go beyond their “physical” capability. With Leonardo a surgeon can make incisions at the sub mm level, suture capillaries and so on. This feat is made possible on the one hand by a computer that can scale up the surgeon movements and by the other hand by a robot that can operate with micron precision. The surgeon observe the operating field from a station that is just a few meters away from the patient.

The daVinci robot was approved by FDA in 2000 and it has assisted in thousands of surgery since.

Now a team of researchers at CSAIL, MIT, have demonstrated a virtual reality interface to let a person operates a robot by looking at reality as if he was the robot (watch the clip).

The approach they followed was to create a “homunculus” inside the “brain” of the robot and map such a homunculus with the actions performed by the operator, that in turns is using the robot’s sensors to “feel” what the robot feels.

The apparatus adopted to convey this “robotic feeling” is a standard Oculus Rift set up, the innovation lies all in the software creating and mapping the “homunculus”.

The concept applies to any tele-control of a robot and the software should be easily portable on different robotic platforms.  The researchers claim the system is quite effective providing the operator a seamless identification with the robot, hence a straightforward way to operate it.

It is a sort of a symbiotic relationship, where the senses are provided by the robot and the “brain” by the human operator.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently the Chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and up to September 2018 he was the Head of the EIT Digital Industrial Doctoral School. Previously, up to December 2011, he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.