College student Tim Lee has developed a robotic arm that can not only paint works of fine art, but may be able to remove your appendix one day.
The idea came to Lee when he heard about a robot that could play percussive instruments. A hobbyist himself, Lee had built robots that could throw balls and balance like a gymnast on a beam, but he'd never considered teaching them to do art.
"I never really thought you could do music with robots," he said. "That got me thinking, 'What else can you do with robots that most people wouldn't think about or imagine happening?' I thought I could do something with painting and that prompted the idea of robotic surgery."
He turned to the Internet for parts, and before long was at work on his mechanical arm, alongside Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center's Craig Hamilton.
At first, Lee taught the robot to paint lines, then shapes, then basic drawings like houses and trees. Then he sprang a surprise on the machine: it had to learn to paint the human body. Teaching the robot where certain organs are, how to access them, and how to make the minute movements that save lives was a Sisyphean task, but Lee says it's a lot like painting the "Mona Lisa" (not that that's easy, either).
"You can think of a painting canvas as a body and the brush as a surgeon's knife," Lee, now a senior at Wake Forest, explained.
Right now, robots are often used by surgeons to help in the operating process, but none operate completely on their own. One of the most common systems for robotic operation is also inspired by a painter. The daVinci System uses robots to perform invasive surgeries like hysterectomies. It's named after Leonardo daVinci, who mapped out intricate drawings of the human body, and inspired the first robot.
One potential competitor is the Raven Surgical Robotics System, which aims to allow surgeons to control the machine from a distance, and make fine movements. Lee hopes his robot will be able to be completely autonomous, giving patients the precision and exactness we've come to expect from machines.
Lee may have some rivals for the role of youngest robotics hero in America. Some high school students in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, were recognized for their efforts in naming Surgio, Landmark Medical Center's new state-of-the-art daVinci Xi surgical robot. But it can only operate with human help. How old school.
Note: This story was updated Sept. 28 to reflect the student's role in naming the surgical robot.