May 2021 | Volume 22 No. 2
Robots Do Us Better
Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are changing in rapid and fundamental ways. Think back to AlphaGo, which was the first algorithmic program to defeat a human player of Go. That was barely six years ago, yet to Professor Xi Ning, Chair Professor of Robotics and Automation and Director of the Emerging Technologies Institute, it is almost old hat.
Professor Xi arrived at HKU around the same time as AlphaGo’s achievement, having worked for two decades on robotics at Michigan State University where his findings were applied in industrial applications such as automotive manufacturing and nuclear waste clean-up.
“Having a robot play Go is easy – it just has to make a decision, it doesn’t have to take action,” he said. “Getting a robot to take action is a much more difficult problem.”
Professor Xi has applied himself to that challenge by combining robots, sensors such as cameras, and AI to develop multiple robotic tools that have a wide range of uses, such as scientific research, manufacturing, medicine, disinfection and even art creation.
One promising line of investigation is nanorobotics. He and his team have developed a nano-scale robot hand that can interact with molecules. This interaction provides information about the molecules and enables scientists to manipulate them, for example by assembling molecules for drug discovery or conducting diagnostics.
The system is already being applied in collaboration with Professor Pengtao Liu of the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine to his groundbreaking work on stem cell differentiation (see Of Mice, Men and Pigs). “The nanorobot can ‘feel’ the stem cell. We hope this will help identify or predict what potency the stem cell has so it can then be manipulated to differentiate in a specific way, for example, into a heart or other organ,” Professor Xi said.
“Our nanorobot is the only one of its kind in the world and it will enable us to do very advanced innovations.”
The robot is fitted with a camera and arm to assemble ballpoint pens and can do autonomous assembly without any human input.
See and touch
More life-sized inventions are also being produced by Professor Xi’s laboratory, such as a robot that can do autonomous assembly without any human input. The test robot is fitted with a camera and arm to assemble ballpoint pens. The robot is ‘smart’ enough to identify if there is a part available for assembly and if not, it will wait until one is available.
A wearable robot, in the form of a brace or belt, has also been developed that can help elderly people stand up and walk. The robot automatically measures electrical signals that are sent to the muscles from the brain to signal muscle contraction, then gives them an extra boost. “When people get old, they can lose muscle mass and not have enough strength to stand up, so this could help them by generating additional strength for their muscles,” he said.
Yet another system they developed can measure human tactile sense, which can be used to diagnose medical conditions, such as loss of balance in the elderly, and even detect cancerous tumours in dense breast tissue.
Professor Xi notes that the robotics field is being driven forward not only by new technology, but new demands for application, such as COVID-19. His team have developed a disinfection robot that can bring a very high-intensity ultraviolet light close to surfaces. The light is too potent for human cleaners to use but can kill viruses quickly and it is currently being tested in HKU’s libraries. In addition, following the reliance on online learning during the pandemic, they have just received funding to develop a ‘telelaboratory’ that would enable students to perform laboratory experiments from home through remote control of robots.
Professor Xi Ning (first from right) and his research team.
“In the past, robots were developed to do things humans did not want to do – the ‘3D’ jobs that are dirty, dull and dangerous. Robots have quite successfully replaced humans in these jobs. Over 90 per cent of car manufacturing processes are now done by robots,” he said.
“But when you talk about the future, the key point is that robots can augment human capabilities – they can do something humans cannot do. I call it ‘ultra-robotics’.”
Professor Xi and his laboratory have been pushing at the ‘ultra’ envelope. They have developed an artist robot that can quickly capture a person’s facial features and draw a portrait of them. The technology has industrial potential, for instance in cleaning or polishing surfaces with complicated contours.
And they are working what he calls a ‘biosyncretic’ robot that combines an infrared camera with the cell of a snake eye. “There is a lot of potential for humans. If a certain part of your body breaks down, you could replace it using an electrical-mechanical system,” he said, acknowledging some people may find this scary. “When you don’t understand things, you may feel scared. But once you understand, you can take advantage of it,” he said.
The artist robot, which can quickly capture a person’s facial features and draw a portrait of them, has industrial potential in cleaning or polishing surfaces with complicated contours.
When you talk about the future, the key point is that robots can augment human capabilities – they can do something humans cannot do. I call it ‘ultra-robotics’.
PROFESSOR XI NING