Robots to the Rescue: Machines That Bring Hope
This post was written by Feifei Sun and originally appeared on NationSwell.
Standing 16 inches tall and adorned in blue and bright yellow paint, the CosmoBot could easily pass for the kind of toy you would see on a toddler shelf at Kids “R” Us. But, like all complex inventions, CosmoBot’s wonders aren’t immediately obvious. Designed to help educators and therapists working with young children in rehabilitation programs for developmental diseases, such as cerebral palsy, the remote-controlled device packs a two-in-one punch. As kids play games such as Simon Says with the robot, they strengthen their motor, speaking and educational skills, while therapists use the bot to collect cognitive and responsive data. “It’s not easy to ask a parent to pick between doing 15 minutes of physical therapy or 15 minutes of homework with their kids,” says Corinna Lathan, co-founder of the engineering company AnthroTronix, which developed CosmoBot. “As a mom myself, I’d much rather spend the time reading with my child. But for parents, this technology is an acceptable way to promote physical therapy as well as education.”
It’s exactly this kind of human-technology interaction that motivated Lathan to start AnthroTronix in 1999. The company, based in Silver Spring, Md., specializes in creating wearable robotics and computing control systems, and Lathan has made it a mission over the last 10 years to bridge the gap between technology and humans, turning high-level designs into necessary, everyday applications that the average person can use. The CosmoBot was the company’s first foray into advanced interface technology, merging the research and development of Lathan’s past with her passion for consumer products.
AnthroTronix isn’t where Lathan thought she’d be using her skills; in fact, she seemed destined for a future in academia after earning a bachelor’s degree in biopsychology and mathematics from Swarthmore College, a master’s in aeronautics and astronautics and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and scoring teaching gigs in both aerospace and biomedical engineering, But nearly 15 years ago, Lathan started to feel limited by the theories, labs and hypotheticals of the ivory tower. At the time, she was working with wearable computers and sensors, particularly in the rehabilitation of disabled kids, and found herself returning to the same question: Why weren’t these medical developments available on a consumer level?
“Kids didn’t have access to a fraction of the technology that had an absolutely profound impact on them,” Lathan says. “I was interested in how much more these kids could do with just a little more access.”
Listen to her speak, and it’s easy to understand why Lathan left academia to go out on her own. She talks quickly and loudly (a good couple of notches above inside voice). You can hear the sense of urgency in her voice — an urgency that underlies her belief that technology can bring us closer emotionally and help humans become more empathetic toward one another. But Lathan’s inventions are more than just feel-good products: They solve problems, save money and, at their core, utilize technology to help humans help themselves.
A pioneer in the industry when it launched in July 1999, AnthroTronix has more competitors in the field today, such as Wii Fit, an interactive exercise regimen; Fitbit, a wearable digital pedometer; and the bioelectronics company MC10, which is developing skin-like sensors. All these companies share Lathan’s vision to make tech work better for humans. Elsewhere, people are incorporating and building on Lathan’s work. A glove made by AnthroTronix was used in the development of a military robot called the Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR), which has the potential to rescue injured soldiers during combat. Last year, a handful of biomedical engineering students at the Catholic University of America, where Lathan once taught, upgraded the CosmoBot as part of a year-long senior design class, adding a degree of motion to its arms so the robot could portray body language and incorporating facial expressions to better assist children with social impairments. “It was an incredibly inspiring experience to work with someone like Dr. Lathan, who has a great mind for seeing where she can make a difference with tech and then doing it,” says Danika Coaplin, a CUA graduate who worked on the upgrade. “We learned about that in school all the time, but to see it in effect was something different. And her projects are so specific in the audience or market they target, which is remarkable.”
“It was an incredibly inspiring experience to work with someone like Dr. Lathan, who has a great mind for seeing where she can make a difference with tech and then doing it.”
- Danika Coaplin
Lathan marvels at how many more tools for such problem-solving exist today, compared with when she first launched her company. Now, it’s less about inventing and more a matter of combining available software and hardware to make products that address our needs. One of AnthroTronix’s newest technologies, Surgical Skills Training and Assessment Instrument (SUSTAIN), was developed with the help of a small-business grant from the Office of Naval Research. Its goal is to help military surgeons retain specialized surgery skills, like the ability to perform laparoscopy, during their deployments, where such operations are rare. The technology will preserve skills among doctors, and the fact that it’s an iPad-based design means SUSTAIN isn’t just an efficient tool but a cost-effective one, too.
Another new technology at AnthroTronix is Defense Automated NeuroBehavioral Assessment (DANA), a cognitive and psychological tool that can help assess service members’ injuries during battle. Created for the Department of Defense, DANA software runs on the Android, making it portable. It’s currently being tested on soldiers in Afghanistan, and once fully validated, will help doctors and other health providers recognize symptoms related to brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers. “It’s bizarre — DANA uses the lowest tech, but it’s the most exciting invention in terms of potential impact,” Lathan says. “It’s using a smartphone to program cognitive and psychological tests that have been around for 40 years. But by putting them on a mobile platform, you’ve enabled evaluation of your brain health anywhere in the world.”
Photo Credit: CosmoBot Facebook page