White House: Robots are more than meets the eye

August 9, 2013

Capitalizing on the public's summer love of robots (particularly in movie blockbusters), the White House hosted a Google+ Hangout on Friday among leading roboticists as the latest installment of their "We The Geeks" series.

Throwing up the Vulcan salute, which actually has nothing to do with robots, co-moderator Tom Kalil asked guest roboticists to present their recent projects and share what inspired them.

There was a robot that could thread a needle into an organ so precisely that it guaranteed a minimally invasive surgery; a robot that made tea, despite knocking a mug over in the process; and a robot named "Survivor Buddy" that can perform search and rescue missions. Most importantly, there was a robot that could assemble IKEA furniture. Jackpot.

Though the White House convened the nation's top experts to discuss their projects on the world's most sophisticated technology, the session fell victim to the technological struggles that befall us all: terrible connections in video chats.

How is it that we've created a robot that can perform low-risk search and rescue missions but we can't get the audio on a video chat to work properly?

The question was never answered in the online discussion, which, to be fair, enjoyed mostly clear audio despite the "machine gun" noises moderator co-John Green heard during poor Daniela Rus's presentation (she's the genius behind the robot that can put together your IKEA bookshelf).

Blockbuster movies blame robots for everything from the destruction of the world to the destruction of the world (it's only ever the destruction of the world), but guest roboticists acknowledged this and explained why robots are more than what meets the eye.

"I thought robots were bulky and stupid things," admitted Robin Murphy, who directed the project on the search and rescue robots.

"The turning point for me was realizing how much they can improve human quality of life," said Allison Okamura, principal investigator on a Stanford University project to combine medicine and robotics. "It's not about building gadgets, it's about designing devices that will help people."

Ruth Tam is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthetam.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics
Next Story
Ruth Tam · August 9, 2013