Robots that defend you and mend you

April 29, 2015

future is now panelIf you think the last decade of invention was dizzying, then buckle your seat belt. Because if Silicon Valley inventor William Santana Li is right, the world will see changes over the next 10 years that “will make the last 50 years pale in comparison.”

Li, who spoke on the “Future Is Now” panel at the Global Conference, founded Knightscope, Inc., which is developing an army of autonomous data machines, or robots, to predict, detect and prevent crime. 

His modest mission? “What if we could develop a set of technologies that could cut crime by half?” he asked, noting that a drop in crime would have a dramatic impact on everything from personal safety to housing values and insurance rates.

Think of Li’s creations as robocops equipped with a variety of gee-whiz devices, from motion detectors and digital cameras to mapping systems and dangerous materials detectors. It might not be able to fly (not yet, that is), but the five-foot, 300-pound robot can do almost everything else, including securing dangerous places and monitoring large crowds. And at a much lower cost than current methods. Li said his machines rent for $6.25 an hour, compared with $25 an hour for a security guard.

“What if you could crowdsource security?” he asked. “Think about the Boston Marathon.”

Li’s panel delivered on the promise. Sharing the stage were Nina Tandon, whose Harlem-based startup, EpiBone, is developing technology that can grow bones from stem cells, and Frederic Moll, the creator of robots that can perform surgery faster, more precisely and with less invasive procedures than is humanly possible. 

EpiBone uses three-dimensional data obtained from a CT scan to create a “bone scaffolding.” Stem cells grown from a patient’s fat sample are then inserted inside that scaffolding to produce a precise copy of a piece of bone that can repair or replace the original material. 

Tandon said her firm is now testing its products in pigs. She estimates it could start the clinical trials process in humans in two to three years. “After blood transfusions, bone grafts are the most implanted materials in the body,” she said, noting that 2 million such procedures are performed annually worldwide. And why stop at bones?

“We hope to disrupt the world of health care,” Tandon said. “We are first of all and foremost developing personalized medical products.”

Moll, the chairman and CEO of Auris Surgical Robotics, Inc., likens his firm’s next-generation surgery to drone warfare: Robotic devices “search and destroy” malignant cells with minimal “collateral damage.”  

Auris’ little machines enable physicians to travel inside the body to identify a problem and deliver a treatment. That might involve the removal of a malignant growth, the targeted delivery of medicine or destruction of a kidney stone with a laser. Within a few decades, he predicts, even the most complicated surgeries will be performed by high-tech gadgets.

Technology may have a place at the operating table, but Moll assured the audience that it wasn’t time to jettison the doctors. The surgeon’s value, he said, will come from providing “great judgment and deciding what to do and when to do it” rather than having dexterity and “great hands.”

When asked how EpiBone’s research might transform robotic medicine, Moll delivered a generous accolade to his fellow panelist.

“The sort of research you’re doing is going to lead down the path of greatness,” he said, with a nod toward Tandon. “And we’re all going to be beneficiaries.”