USC Expert Eyes Robotics Prospects

Pioneering professor George Bekey recounts the field’s advancements at a Southern California Biomedical Industry conference.
By Eric Mankin
USC Viterbi School of Engineering professor emeritus George Bekey is a pioneer in robotics at the university.

Photo/Eric Mankin
During the past decade, robotic devices have moved out of research laboratories and into clinical practice, USC Viterbi School of Engineering professor emeritus George Bekey told an audience of biomedical executives, adding that the prospects for further developments are excellent.

Bekey, a pioneer in robotics at USC, defined robots as “machines that sense, think and act” to attendees at a recent Southern California Biomedical Industry Investors conference. He described current and developing applications in a number of medical areas, all in which the USC Viterbi School is playing a leading role.

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

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

Bekey also discussed the Da Vinci robotic surgical system as well robotic prosthetic devices to either replace or assist with arm and leg function.

Bekey also talked about rehabilitation robotics, describing the use of systems that 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 the audience.

Rehabilitation robots feature developments in mobility, such as new models capable of moving up and down staircases.

Bekey said robots such as those being developed by his USC colleague Maja Mataric also are assisting in rehabilitation as teachers, coaches and helpers. “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 legal, traditional and technical barriers stand in the way of increased use of robots, Bekey said, but the technology is on its way at the USC Viterbi School.

Bekey, a national academy of engineering member, was the founder of the school’s Department of Computer Science under Dean Zohrab Kaprilien.