Can you read my mind? UC researchers engineer the framework for helpful robots with human intuition

CINCINNATI - Last January, the cover of Wired magazine showed Jimmy Fallon with the finger from a metallic robot hand on his lips and headline that proclaimed: “Robots Take Over!” Fallon speculated that his own robot replacement might be slimmer and funnier than he is, and the article “Robots Are Already Replacing Us,” highlighted some roles in which robots might someday work alongside humans.

While robots are already handling many dangerous, high-precision, or tedious jobs related to military operations, police work, non-invasive surgery, space exploration, and manufacturing, the Wired article showed how robots are being tested for work as nurses, waiters, comedians, artists, and therapists for autistic children.

As programs for robotics research expand around the world, the University of Cincinnati is considering establishing an interdisciplinary educational curriculum to help train students for work in the field of human-centered robotics.

“In my opinion, UC’s human-centered robotics research is unique—not just in the Tri-State area, but across the country,” said Guarav Mukherjee, a master’s student in mechanical engineering. “We have a very active collaboration among the engineering, medical, and nursing communities. A set of very enthusiastic, gifted and passionate researchers are working tirelessly to develop the next generation of robotic devices that will promote healthy, independent, and happy living.”

UC's role in robotics

Futurists predict that between the year 2020 and 2040, intelligent robots that can sense their environments, make decisions, and learn will be used in 30 percent of households and organizations. Some experts believe that by the year 2050, robot “brains” will be able to execute 100 trillion instructions per second, rivaling human intelligence.

The point is: We don’t yet know how many ways robots will be used over the next 50 years. But we can be sure that all types of robots will play increasingly important roles in daily life.

Making futuristic forecasts a reality will require a great deal of interdisciplinary research and engineering. To help lay the foundation for a curriculum that could train tomorrow's robot developers, the UC College of Engineering and Applied Science hosted the International Human-Centered Robotics Symposium from November 15-17.

Participants shared ideas for future developments in human-centered robots. Sometimes referred to as “co-robotic systems,” human-centered robots interact in an intelligent way that directly supports their human users.

The symposium was co-chaired by UC Computer Science Professor Anca Ralescu, Ph.D. and Grant Schaffner, Ph.D. an assistant professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics.

Ralescu is leading studies of brain-computer interfaces, known as BCI. Schaffner has been involved in designing a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton, which would help people who have difficulty moving around. Built with a low profile, the lower-body exoskeleton supplements the person’s natural strength and requires relatively little power.

If UC’s brain-computer interface research helps improve the responsiveness of the exoskeleton, it would be a good example of how robotics technology can directly support human users.

Weird science or real advances?

What if data about the brain's electrical activity could be combined with measurements of electrical activity in a muscle? Could a brain-computer interface interpret and predict a person’s intentions to move?

These are the types of questions being explored in BCI experiments being conducted at UC by Shikha Chaganti, a graduate student in computer science advised by Ralescu. 

Chaganti's experiment focuses on whether it’s possible for a computer to predict when a person is thinking about going from a sitting position to a standing position and vice versa. The experiment is being conducted in collaboration with Guarav Mukherjee, a UC master’s student in mechanical engineering, who designed a spring-assisted leg exoskeleton for people with limited mobility.

“The objective of this collaborative project is to develop exoskeletons that can help the elderly regain independence of motion,” explained Mukherjee. He hopes some day the cost of using exoskeletons will be comparable to the cost of using a wheelchair.

“Wheelchairs are currently a very cost-effective option, but they cause secondary complications that impact the user’s health and increase the cost of health care.”

Using a BCI could help make the exoskeleton smart and more cooperative, Schaffner said. Instead of allowing the exoskeleton to take over a person’s movements, sensors in the exoskeleton would read the electrical activity in the muscle and send the data to the BCI.

“If we can understand what type of action a person is trying to perform and how much they are trying to use their own muscle, then we can supplement their movement in an appropriate way," he explained.

Being able to control the movements of the exoskeleton with one’s thoughts (“I’d like to stand

up now” or “I’d like to walk faster”) might make wearing the device seem more natural and fluid.

Human-centered robots: Here to help

While science fiction writers have imagined nightmarish scenarios in which robots rule with the proverbial iron first, a great deal of robotics research is actually focused on helping workers avoid injuries or overcome disabilities related to aging, accidents, or illness.

According to Ralescu, the goal isn’t to take job away from people, but to help people keep their jobs or enable people with disabilities to get jobs.

For example, one presenter at the International Human-Centered Robotics symposium was Dr. Adam J. Wilson, a professor of neurology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. He talked about state-of-the art BCI technologies and how they might be used in prosthetics.

Ralescu believes the team at UC is prepared to excel in teaching human-centered robotics. She said developing a curriculum in BCI and Human-Centered Robotics, “would put us in a pioneering position in the training of computer scientists and human-centered roboticists.”

Schaffner agrees that a formal, well-coordinated curriculum would prepare students for jobs in a rapidly growing field. Many companies, research labs, and government agencies are involved in various facets of robotics.

“Most universities with engineering programs offer some courses related to robotics,” he said, adding that students typically have to pick their own courses and there are often gaps in programs.

He pointed out that robotics is a subject many high school students relate to, and the subject offers a mechanism for getting students interested in learning science, technology, engineering, and math.

Since 1992, a nationwide program called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) has conducted Robotics Challenge competitions for students in grades nine through 12. In 2012, the robotics team from Lakota West High School won an Engineering Inspiration award at the FIRST regional competition in Knoxville. This year, five award-winning FIRST® Robotics Competition teams and their robots opened the 87th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

If UC wants to be known as a leader in training students for BCI and robotics careers, Ralescu said, “We need to move fast to put resources, infrastructure, equipment, and people into human-centered robotics and supporting disciplines.”

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