Science Fellow spotlight: Katherine J. Kuchenbecker

This afternoon, Katherine J. Kuchenbecker, the first member of PopTech's sophomore class of Science and Public Leadership Fellows to present at this year's conference, talked about her efforts to make robotic systems more touchy feely. "If the sense of touch is so useful to humans, why are there so few human-computer interfaces that exploit it?" she asked the crowd, citing the numerous tricky manual feats we regularly complete, such as assembling a coffee table from IKEA.

At her laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, Kuchenbecker is working to incorporate the sense of touch, known as haptics, into human-computer interfaces. "We seek to engineer new haptic technologies that take advantage of the richness of the sense of help people do things they haven't done before," she explained.

Kuchenbecker's work stands to transform the way surgeons operate, play computer games, drive a car -- and even the way we shop online. Here are a few examples she talked about:

  • A tablet computer that actually lets you feel the objects on the screen. Think a swatch of carpeting or a fur collar.
  • Robot-assisted surgical tools that allow surgeons to feel as they cut, probe or suture, improving the quality of care.
  • A robot agile enough to manipulate almost any object it encounters, from a bunch of bananas to the chicken drumsticks you may bring home from the grocery store.  

Kuchenbecker and her graduate students have also worked to give robots the ability to communicate via touch -- one of the most important ways that humans interact. Their chosen gestures? Not a kiss or a hug or a handshake. The next time you meet a robot, try greeting it with a high five or a fist bump.

Images: Perrin Ireland, Alphachimp Studio, and Kris Krug for PopTech

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