Optimizing Autonomous Control of Robotic Systems that Interact with Humans

June 13, 2024
How a neuroscientist with expertise in robotics and artificial intelligence investigates opportunities for optimizing autonomous control of advanced robotic systems.

In Part 2 of Machine Design’s interview series with Dr. Brokoslaw Laschowski, a research scientist and principal investigator at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, describes how his lab is developing control systems for robotic prosthetic legs along a spectrum of autonomy, ranging from fully-autonomous control using machine learning to neural control using brain-machine interfaces. Simply put, he specializes in giving robots intelligence, powered by either artificial brains or human brains

READ MORE: Game-changing Assistive Technology: Toward Robotic Leg Control that Interacts with the Brain

Among Laschowski’s long-term goals is an ambition to conduct the first clinical trials to assess what level of control individual patients prefer. Some patients may not be instinctively inclined to hand over control of their movements to robots powered by artificial intelligence, Laschowski said. Rather than cede control, some patients may prefer to maintain control over the robot. One way to achieve this is by using a neural interface, either at the muscle or brain level, so that the patient can decide how the robot should behave simply by thinking.

Comparison With Autonomous Driving

One way to conceptualize his research, according to Laschowski, is to think of the various levels of driving autonomy. Most people have experienced human control when driving, Laschowski explained. In this case, the driver is handling the steering wheel. The opposite end of the spectrum are fully autonomous vehicles, where the car would drive itself using artificial intelligence without any human intervention. He noted that some people may think they like the idea of fully autonomous cars, but since such vehicles don’t yet exist, they cannot know for sure. 

READ MORE: Transforming Prosthetics: The Nexus of Technology and Athletic Performance

Whether driving an electric car or walking with a robotic leg, there exists this spectrum of autonomy, ranging from fully manual to fully autonomous. Different people will likely prefer different levels of autonomy. “The automotive industry is studying this and seeing what level of autonomy individual persons prefer,” said Laschowski. “We’re doing the same thing with robotic legs.” 

The long list of potential users of his robotic technologies, including patients with amputation, spinal cord injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and many others, opens a wealth of opportunities within the field of rehabilitation medicine. However, in addition to assisting clinical populations, Laschowski said his robots could also be used to augment “healthy” users such as workers in firefighting, search and rescue, military, and manufacturing and give them superhuman performance. 

READ MORE: Prioritizing Human Safety in Industrial Robot Design

Also in This Series

About the Author

Rehana Begg | Editor-in-Chief, Machine Design

As Machine Design’s content lead, Rehana Begg is tasked with elevating the voice of the design and multi-disciplinary engineer in the face of digital transformation and engineering innovation. Begg has more than 24 years of editorial experience and has spent the past decade in the trenches of industrial manufacturing, focusing on new technologies, manufacturing innovation and business. Her B2B career has taken her from corporate boardrooms to plant floors and underground mining stopes, covering everything from automation & IIoT, robotics, mechanical design and additive manufacturing to plant operations, maintenance, reliability and continuous improvement. Begg holds an MBA, a Master of Journalism degree, and a BA (Hons.) in Political Science. She is committed to lifelong learning and feeds her passion for innovation in publishing, transparent science and clear communication by attending relevant conferences and seminars/workshops. 

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