No plans for `human' robots, says expert

From operating rooms to outer space, real robots are designed to perform single, specialized tasks

by Andy Poon staff writer

Remember the popular cartoon series The Jetsons with Rosie the Robot? Well, even now in the 21st century, a UBC robotics expert rules out expecting a robot maid in your home anytime soon.

"In terms of the Bicentennial Man, don't hold your breath," says Tim Salcudean, referring to the latest flick starring Robin Williams as an android that experiences emotions and creative thought.

Salcudean, a leading robotics researcher and professor in the Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering, says while much progress has been made in developing automation, there are factors holding back a human-like robot.

"This dream of building a robot that will replace humans is very far off," he says. "We are able to produce robots that can do one thing very well but nothing that can match the flexibility and intelligence of a human."

Since arriving at UBC almost a decade ago, Salcudean has been busy applying robotics to a variety of fields, with his latest efforts directed towards improving tools for medical diagnosis and surgery.

He and his team of researchers at the university's Robotics and Control Laboratory focus much of their work on the human interface between man and machines instead of trying to replace humans outright with robots.

In collaboration with heart surgeons from St. Paul's Hospital, Salcudean is working on cardiac stabilization techniques that will allow coronary bypass surgery without having to stop the heart.

"You get all kinds of bad side effects from stopping the heart and using the cardio-pulmonary bypass machine--all leading to increased recovery times," Salcudean says.

His group has developed a passive, pneumatic articulated arm that can hold the coronary bypass site still while the heart is beating. Prototypes for more extensive studies and a commercialization plan are in the works.

Another new technique involves the use of a robot that tracks the motion of the coronary bypass site and provides a moving platform for the surgeon's hands to brace against. The platform moves in sync with the heart and keeps the surgeon's hands at a fixed position from the surgical site allowing delicate tasks to be accomplished with accuracy.

Salcudean has also been working on the development of small robots that can push back the user's hand to endow virtual objects seen on the screen with physical properties such as mass and stiffness.

With applications ranging from computer games to computer-aided design, technology patented by UBC was purchased and is used by Immersion Corp. of San Jose, Calif.

more information
See the Robotics and Control Laboratory Web site at