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Viterbi Robot Pioneer Foresees Bright Future for Medical Automatons

Southern California Biomedical Industry Investors listen to eminent emeritus
Eric Mankin/George Bekey
July 11, 2007 —

During the past decade robotic devices have moved out of research laboratories into clinical practice, Viterbi emeritus professor George Bekey recently told an attentive audience of biomed executives, and the prospects for further developments are excellent.

Bekey: eminent emeritus
After defining robots as "machines that sense, think and act," Bekey described current and developing applications in a number of medical areas, all ones  in which the Viterbi School is playing a leading role, to attendees at a recent Southern California Biomedical Industry Investors conference, profusely illustrating his comments with  more than 40 slides. Bekey was a pioneer in robotics at USC.

Under the heading "robots in our bodies," Bekey showed examples of robotic devices that are implanted in the body or penetrate the body for surgical purposes, including three devices developed by USC colleagues: 

  • The Bion, an implantable muscle stimulator developed by Dr. Gerald Loeb from the Biomedical Engineering Department and the Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering, 
  • The artificial retina developed by Dr. Mark Humayun at the USC School of Medicine,
  • The neural chip being developed by Dr. Ted Berger from the USC Neuroscience Center to replace a portion of the hippocampus in the brain. 

Bekey also discussed the Da Vinci robotic surgical system and new swallowable sensors and robotic prosthetic and orthotic devices to either replace or assist with arm and leg function. 

Bekey went on to discuss rehabilitation roborics, describing the use of robotic systems to assist in the recovery of arm and leg function following a stroke or spinal injury. "This area has become of increasing importance as we learn more about the plasticity of the brain, so that proper mobility training can effectively 'rewire' portions of the brain," Bekey told his audience.

Rehabilitation robots included developents in moblity, such as new models of capable of moving up and down staircases.  Bekey said robots are also assisting in rehabilitaton as teachers, coaches and helpers, "socially assistive robots' such as those being developed by USC colleague Dr. Maja Mataric.  "These robots interact with patients by voice and gesture, but have no physical contact with them," he said. "Rather, they offer advice and encouragement during training and rehabilitation."

Some barriers, legal, traditional, and technical stand in the way of increased use of robots, Bekey said - but at the Viterbi School, the technology is on its way.

Bekey, a national academy of engineering member, was the founder of the USC Viterbi School Department of Computer Science under Dean Zohrab Kaprielian. The speech was delivered June 7.