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World-renowned robot engineer’s message to medical doctors

Lee Min-ju  기사승인 2017.10.13  08:53:35

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While the number of hospitals that use AI to treat patients is increasing, many doctors remain skeptical of these practices. However, Professor Dennis Hong at the University of California Los Angeles, the world-renowned robotics engineer, stressed during an interview with Korea Biomedical Review that robotics could serve as useful tools in medicine and can bring new opportunities for doctors. He also said engineering and medicine resemble each other.

Professor Hong has developed CHARLI, the first humanoid robot in the United States, and developed the world’s first car for the visually impaired. He is now the director of UCLA’s RoMeLa, widely known as the mecca for robotics research.

UCLA Professor Dennis Hong emphasizes the cooperation and collaboration between medical and engineering fields, in an interview with Korea Biomedical Review.

Question: You said engineering and medical fields are similar. What did you mean by this?

Answer: Many people believe medicine and engineering are entirely different. But doctors use medicine to save lives, and engineers try to save lives by using technology. I decided to develop a disaster relief robot after I saw a worker fall out of a building at a construction site and lose his life. Those incidents made me decide to make robots do the work that humans cannot, and must not, do. As doctors strive to save lives, I am also working to save lives through the study of robotics.

Q: You have also developed medical robots. Right?

A: Some of my inventions include a car which a visually impaired personal can make active decisions and drive, artificial arms and legs. In the case of artificial arms, there are very fantastic products, but they are costly, too. That is why I set a goal to create an artificial arm that could cost less than 500,000 won ($440) so that people without arms can afford them. Instead of using motors, I managed a way to use compressed air, and it only costs 300,000 won to create this prosthetic arm.

I also made a sports exercise equipment by applying artificial muscle technology. Exercise equipment at gyms are big, bulky, and take a lot of room. However, this exercise equipment has the size two palms put together and can connect with a smartphone to control the intensity of the exercise. This can be used for rehabilitation, and also be used to maintain muscle endurance of astronauts who are unable to exercise due to the lack of gravity. I try to create robots from robotic technologies to make our lives easier rather than the robots that look like humans. In particular, I tend to apply medical applications a lot.

Recently, we created a robot that doesn’t fall, named BALLU (Buoyancy Assisted Lightweight Legged Unit). This robot is perfect for the ongoing trend of Silver Robotics focused on senior citizens. BALLU is possibly the worlds’ safest robot, and because it is made of helium balloons, it can’t fall. The problem with humanoids is that they are slow, dangerous, complex and heavy. What happens if a robot is carrying a baby or a senior and it falls while the robot climbs up the stairs? It's frightening just to imagine the situation. BALLU can be hugged, can deliver medicine, and can even communicate via iPad and other IT devices.

Q: You have improved unmanned vehicle for visually disabled persons for the first time in the world, receiving a lot of international attention.

A: The purpose of this creation is designed to give freedom, independence, and happiness to the blind. I did not want the car to be just something that carries the blind, but the one the visually impaired can drive.

People who see the car for the visually impaired we have developed, usually focus on the automobile aspect of it. But the focus of the project was the non-visual user interfaces. Three interfaces were developed in a way to “feel” the information to the blind rather than “showing” it to them.

Gloves that vibrate in consistent patterns indicate a direction, and the chair informs the current velocity. However, independent judgment by the visually impaired was impossible with these two interfaces, so we created the “AirPix”'. AirPix is a device that paints a picture with compressed air that comes out of tens of thousands of holes, providing information about the way for blind people when they put their hands on it. When developing this device, I collaborated with many visually impaired people, which served as a significant momentum for the success of this project.

Q: As you are developing products related to healthcare, you must need cooperation with doctors, mustn’t you?

A: Collaboration and cooperation is a necessity. To make robots, we need lots of academic application, including mechanical engineering, computer engineering, and material engineering. All of these are important, but it is impossible for one person to be an expert at all of them. I can’t be a doctor all of a sudden to create a medical robot. This is why collaboration and cooperation is a prerequisite.

It is not an exaggeration to say that I went to UCLA for this purpose. For 11 years, I worked as a professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Virginia Tech and moved to UCLA three years ago. UCLA is a world-class university and is especially famous for its medical school. Among the problems in medicine, there are probably some that can be solved by robotics. But doctors don't know this because the lack of knowledge and understanding in robot engineering, just as robotics engineers lack the expertise in medicine. Also, often times engineers don't know where they can use their skills and technology in the decimal field, even though they can be really useful. Some technologies, such as robots performing surgery are fundamental, and the synergy between medical science and robotics is endless.

Q: What kind of mindsets should doctors have, then?

A: All they need is to have an open mind. “Take a look at this technology” “We have such and such problems in the medical field. Can you fix it?”: conversations and communications like these are more than enough. This kind of mindset applies to robotics engineers as well. Having an open mind and accepting to learn new things are essential for any professionals.

Q: There are a lot worries with AI and the fourth industrial revolution because people think it will not be long before doctors are replaced with robots as well.

A: It is important not to be afraid of being replaced, but to consider how to use this situation as an opportunity. When the ATM was first introduced, people said that the bank staffs would disappear. Instead, however, the bank has increased the number of people involved to manage these machines. New jobs, such as gas stations, auto insurance, garages, and sales centers, have significantly increased in similar situations. Technology is a tool, and the birth of new tools increases the number of new jobs. Now is the time to understand the current situation and how to seize new opportunities, rather than worrying about it.

minju9minju@docdocdoc.co.kr

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