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Rise of the Machines: Robots Man's Best Friend?


LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- There is a famous saying that goes like this: "A dog is man's best friend." But how about this new saying: "A robot is man's best friend."

A new wave of robotic technology is changing society and in the process, hopefully helping to improve the U.S. economy.

We've all seen the sci-fi movies where robots are ready to take over the world. But that's fiction. At Purdue University they're working on real life scenarios.

They're experimenting with human-like robots called "Baxter." Engineering and technology students are working to put Baxter in the operating room to help during surgery.

"What we have here is a robot that will act as a surgical assistant to the main surgeon," Juan Wachs, a professor at Purdue University, told CBN News. "It's not meant to replace the surgical assistant, but it's meant to compliment them."

The idea is to train Baxter for menial surgical tasks so human hands can be doing more important duties. Baxter could be performing in real life surgery settings in a couple years.

Baxter is a pretty incredible robot. It can virtually do any command. If the surgeon calls out for, let's say, a retractor, it hands it to him within seconds.

A Boon to Manufacturing

Baxter isn't just headed to the medical field. Eyes are also on manufacturing and how Baxter can help in the workplace.

What is really groundbreaking is that computer programming doesn't power this technology; it learns by demonstration.

Baxter has cameras that observe the scene while humans wear sensorized clothing and a glove that does motion capturing. Baxter detects what the human is doing and repeats the motion.

Baxter also uses facial expressions like a human. If something isn't right on the assembly line, he can let his human operator know about it.

"If it has nothing to do, it looks bored just like a human does," Purdue professor Richard Voyles explained. "If something goes wrong, it looks concerned just like a human does and if things are working just fine, it's kind of a happy expression."

This technology is the brainchild of a company called Rethink Robotics. They're trying to move robotics to the next level, not replacing human workers but helping them.

The thinking behind this is to help American companies compete with overseas manufacturing where workers do the job for less money. Robotics can help the American worker bring in a higher wage and be more efficient.

"That's where we think robots that can understand humans, understand what they need and how to help and can learn from them and split the tasks can make them much more productive," Voyles told CBN News.

Robot Firefighters?

Baxter isn't the only robot lurking around Purdue's campus. Robots are also lurking around the fire department.

While the robot here doesn't have a name, it's all part of a pilot program with the South Korean government. If successful, robots like this could work with departments by going into dangerous places, taking photos with its thermal imaging camera and fighting fires.

Dale DeYoung works the remote control for the Purdue Fire Department.

"We operated the robot into an area that had already collapsed and we sent the robot in there because we obviously couldn't go in," he said. "We were able to put out a significant amount of that fire just by driving the robot in there and putting a lot of water into that area."

It turns out that this fire-fighting robot provides a valuable lesson.

"I think people now are looking at robots not as some science project or not some idea out of a movie," Eric Matson, a professor at Purdue University, said. "They're starting to use and think about robots that can be used in everyday life."

White House on Board

The Obama administration sees the value of robotic research. The president got a taste of the technology on a recent trip to Japan where he played a little soccer with a robot.

The National Robotics Initiative will provide millions of dollars for additional research, something President Barack Obama says is needed to help spur economic growth.

"As futuristic and, let's face it, as cool as some of this stuff is, as much as we are planning for America's future, this partnership is about new, cutting-edge ideas to create new jobs, spark new breakthroughs, reinvigorate American manufacturing today, right now," the president said.

So what does the future hold in this area? The possibilities are endless.

"Imagine robots you can pour into a disaster scene and then have it reassemble itself into say a jack or a whole robot that can actually remove rubble and pull someone out," Professor Voyles told CBN News.

Baxter would surely be impressed.

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