Schenectady-area robotics work on display

Event showcases robot research, use and interaction with humans
A robotic exoskeleton will allow a person paralyzed from the midsection down to stand and walk.
A robotic exoskeleton will allow a person paralyzed from the midsection down to stand and walk.

A tiny part of the huge world of robotics was on display Tuesday at the Electric City Innovation Center, courtesy of those who are studying, using and developing robots in the Schenectady area.

“The Age Of Robotics” was the latest in ECIC’s Startup Town Square series, a periodic gathering of entrepreneurs, investors, mentors and educators aimed at sharing experiences and facilitating entrepreneurial opportunities in the Capital Region.

Presenting Tuesday were Li Zhang and Charles Theurer, who are researching and developing the next generation of robots at General Electric’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna; Paul Novak and Patti Valenza, of Sunnyview Rehabilitation Center in Schenectady, who showed the benefits to patients of the current generation of robot-assisted physical therapy devices; and Nick Webb, an assistant professor of computer science at Union college, who is studying human-robot interaction — which will only grow more common as robots proliferate.


Theurer didn’t mince words. The coming growth of robotics, he said, is comparable to the Cambrian Explosion of a half-billion years ago, in which most major animal groups were formed.

There currently is an inverse relationship between complexity and autonomy, he said: The more complex a robot’s task, the less autonomy it has. So a Roomba robotic vacuum can operate on its own to clean a living room, for example, while a robotic tool for eye surgery works under control of a doctor.

The challenge is to bring the two variables together: taking robots from augmenting human work to partnering with humans — even replacing humans on complex tasks — by increasing their perception, reasoning and dexterity.

Zhang said some of the robotic applications GE is pursuing are for tasks characterized by one or more of the infamous D’s: dirty, dangerous, dull, difficult or demeaning.

Turbine inspection is a good example, he said. Gas turbines operate at an internal temperature higher than the melting point of their metal components, he said, so the integrity of the ceramic coating on those components is critical.

But inspections can be tedious and difficult, Zhang said. “Traditionally, we have bore scopes to do these inspections. Oftentimes, it takes a lot of time.”

New microrobots can get inside, run an inspection and even affix small patches to repair parts without costly and time-consuming disassembly, he said.

Telerobotics is another area of research, Zhang said: Robots in hazardous or remote locations can make repairs under the control of a technician many miles distant, through the aid of virtual reality technology, he said.

For all of this advancement, robots still have major limitations. Throwing brake levers in a rail yard is a simple if potentially hazardous task for humans. But humans can readily perceive the right piece of metal to grab, and take feedback from how the lever looks, sounds and feels as it moves. This is much harder for a robot.

The path to autonomy for tasks both simple and complex will be through artificial intelligence, by which robots can perceive and reason, Theurer said. Rather than comparing an animal in front of them to a database of millions of images to determine what the animal is, artificially intelligent robots will be capable of what the youngest humans can do: look at the animal and know it’s a dog because we know what makes a dog a dog.

“We’re no longer going to require a million pictures,” Theurer said.



Novak and Valenza started their presentation with a video tracing the progress of a Lake George-area woman who was paralyzed in a skiing accident. Through robot-assisted therapy at Sunnyview, she has regained some of the physical abilities she lost. 

Through most of human history, they said, prosthetics were very limited in function. (Think of an old-time peg leg.) It was only about 20 years ago that the first robotic prosthetics allowed patients to regain lost movement, and even more recently that brain-computer interactions have enabled a patient with a robotic arm to drink from a glass, for example.

This presented a huge leap in potential: Rather than teaching patients how to live with their deficit, therapists could help them regenerate damaged nerves.

“We didn’t think we could rewire the brain,” Novak said.

But they can, thanks to the concept of neuroplasticity, by which brain cells adjust to injury or disease. This is accomplished in the rehabilitation setting through repetitive sensory input: repetitive motion of the affected areas.

A robotic exoskeleton will allow a person paralyzed from the midsection down to stand and walk. A robotic attachment to the arm will allow a patient to remaster the movements for basic tasks that most people take for granted.

“It is really exciting in the world of physical therapy,” Valenza said.

She noted that therapeutic robotics are not in wide use in upstate New York; the closest facility to Sunnyview that uses them is in Syracuse, and that’s not for the general public.

Sunnyview uses exoskeletons — strap-on robotics — from ReWalk Robotics and Ekso Bionics, as well as an InMotion robot for arms. All were purchased through the philanthropic efforts of the Sunnyview Foundation, and all are in almost constant use; the hospital is hoping to acquire another unit.

It was an Ekso exoskeleton that provided the most effective demonstration of the evening, as Andy Cummings, a young accident victim from Rensselaer County, donned the equipment and stood from the chair where he’d been sitting. With concentration etched on his face, and two Sunnyview therapists at his side, he made his way to the front of the audience at ECIC. He offered a simple endorsement that was perhaps unnecessary after what everyone had just seen: “I think the Ekso is good and they really get my legs moving again.”

It was an emotional highlight of the evening.

“I think it’s amazing that robots touch our lives in so many ways,” Jeff Goronkin, CEO of the Electric City Innovation Center, told the audience after Sunnyview’s presentation.



The ways in which robots interact with humans is the subject of a research project at Union College.

The question goes both ways: How do humans feel about robots functioning independently around them, and how should robots be programmed to more effectively interact with humans?

Webb said the team found that people were more often frightened or uneasy when a robot 10 feet away started moving toward them than they were if the robot was 4 feet or 15 feet away. When the robot was 20 feet away, virtually no one was uneasy with its presence.

To make the point, during the demonstration and networking portion of the event, he had V.A.L.E.R.I.E. — a $40,000 robotic cart with a smiling face frozen on its screen — wheeling around on its own through the crowd.

Sure enough, it was hard to ignore the 4-foot tall robot approaching in your peripheral vision, hard not to wonder if it was going to smack into your elbow. (It didn’t.)

Computers, and therefore robots, can be built with the computing power of a human, but with nowhere near the intellectual capacity, Webb noted, . A goal is to create robots that can observe a situation and adapt to it. This will require development of that intellectual capacity.

This is why the Union College study includes a sociologist — to look at how robotics can be tailored to things such as cultural changes. (Webb noted the differences between America and his native England in things as simple as driving habits and the norms of personal space.)

People worried about one big influx of robotics on the horizon — self-driving cars and trucks on the roads around them — might be surprised to know how often jet airliners land themselves, he added. The difference, of course, is that there is a trained pilot and copilot right in the cockpit during the landing.

Webb said the interaction between robots and humans will be a friction point as autonomous vehicles become more common. If every vehicle on the road went robotic at once, there’d be fewer problems than if robotic drivers and their much more variable human counterparts shared the road and tried to figure each other out, he predicted.

“There will be crashes,” he said. “We are the unpredictable thing in the equation.”

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