Katherine J. Kuchenbecker joins the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems as a new director
The Max Planck Society has appointed Katherine J. Kuchenbecker as a director at the Stuttgart location of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems. She will lead the newly established "Haptic Intelligence" department, which focuses on incorporating the sense of touch into robotic systems.
April 20, 2017
Scientists in this group seek to endow robots with astute haptic perception and invent methods for delivering realistic haptic feedback to users of telerobotic and virtual reality systems.
Dr. Kuchenbecker’s research concentrates on the field of haptics, which deals with robot and human interaction with physical objects through the sense of touch. Humans are typically not aware of the importance of this sensory modality because we have exquisite tactile perception. We depend on touch-based information in interactions that range from the commonplace, such as extracting our keys from a bag, to the highly specialized, such as a doctor locating and diagnosing a malignant tumor. Without a sense of touch, we could not control our bodies or manipulate objects.
Today’s robotic systems typically have high-resolution cameras, powerful central processing units, and multi-jointed bodies, but they rarely possess any sort of distributed tactile sensing because such sensors have only recently become available and are still poorly understood. The omission of touch sensing prevents robots from approaching human levels of dexterity. Additionally, modern human-computer interfaces often focus on visual and audio display, ignoring the importance of haptic cues.
Dr. Kuchenbecker’s research addresses the sensing, understanding, and display of tactile information for robots, teleoperation, and innovative interfaces. Her work combines inspiration from neuroscience with novel materials, machine learning, and robotic systems to uncover the principles that are central for haptic perception.
While she was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Kuchenbecker and her students invented a practical method of adding haptic feedback to teleoperated robotic surgery systems like the da Vinci robot manufactured by Intuitive Surgical. Currently used at various German hospitals like Katharinenhospital Stuttgart, these robots enable surgeons to perform a wide variety of difficult surgical procedures through very small incisions. Compared to traditional open surgery, such procedures typically afford shorter healing time, less pain, and lower risk of infection. Her ongoing research with clinical collaborators shows that haptic feedback of instrument vibrations improves the surgeon’s awareness of instrument contacts and may accelerate learning.