ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Giada Gerboni - Biomedical engineer
Giada Gerboni works in surgical robotics, supporting surgeons with new flexible robotic devices in order to make once impossible operations a reality.

Why you should listen

Giada Gerboni is a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, in the Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine (CHARM) Lab. Gerboni is working on the design and control of needle-sized flexible robots, work that aims to improve current percutaneous tumor ablation procedures. As she says: "One of the most exciting parts of this research is to enable surgical operations in ways that, not long ago, had not yet been conceived."

Gerboni received BE and MS degrees in biomedical engineering from the University of Pisa and a PhD in biorobotics from The BioRobotics Institute of Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy. During her PhD, she specialized in surgical robotics, studying and developing innovative strategies for the actuation and sensing of soft and flexible instruments for applications in MIS (Minimally Invasive Surgery).

A new branch of robotics, called "soft robotics," is expanding the boundaries of robotic applications. Soft robotics faces the grand challenge of increasing the capabilities of robots to make them more suitable for physical interactions with the real world. It involves use of soft and flexible materials, deformable sensors and very different control strategies than traditional robots, which are designed to work in well-defined and confined environments. Gerboni has been involved in this field from the time of her PhD, and since then she has been exploring its potential in the medical/surgical area, where safe robot-environment interaction is crucial. 

More profile about the speaker
Giada Gerboni | Speaker | TED.com
TED2018

Giada Gerboni: The incredible potential of flexible, soft robots

Filmed:
1,077,540 views

Robots are designed for speed and precision -- but their rigidity has often limited how they're used. In this illuminating talk, biomedical engineer Giada Gerboni shares the latest developments in "soft robotics," an emerging field that aims to create nimble machines that imitate nature, like a robotic octopus. Learn more about how these flexible structures could play a critical role in surgery, medicine and our daily lives.
- Biomedical engineer
Giada Gerboni works in surgical robotics, supporting surgeons with new flexible robotic devices in order to make once impossible operations a reality. Full bio

Double-click the English transcript below to play the video.

00:13
So, robots.
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Robots can be programmed
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to do the same task millions of times
with minimal error,
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something very difficult for us, right?
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And it can be very impressive
to watch them at work.
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Look at them.
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I could watch them for hours.
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No?
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What is less impressive
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is that if you take these robots
out of the factories,
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where the environments are not
perfectly known and measured like here,
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to do even a simple task
which doesn't require much precision,
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this is what can happen.
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I mean, opening a door,
you don't require much precision.
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(Laughter)
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Or a small error in the measurements,
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he misses the valve, and that's it --
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(Laughter)
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with no way of recovering,
most of the time.
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So why is that?
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Well, for many years,
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robots have been designed
to emphasize speed and precision,
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and this translates
into a very specific architecture.
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If you take a robot arm,
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it's a very well-defined
set of rigid links
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and motors, what we call actuators,
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they move the links about the joints.
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In this robotic structure,
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you have to perfectly
measure your environment,
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so what is around,
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and you have to perfectly
program every movement
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of the robot joints,
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because a small error
can generate a very large fault,
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so you can damage something
or you can get your robot damaged
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if something is harder.
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So let's talk about them a moment.
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And don't think
about the brains of these robots
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or how carefully we program them,
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but rather look at their bodies.
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There is obviously
something wrong with it,
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because what makes a robot
precise and strong
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also makes them ridiculously dangerous
and ineffective in the real world,
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because their body cannot deform
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or better adjust to the interaction
with the real world.
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So think about the opposite approach,
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being softer than
anything else around you.
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Well, maybe you think that you're not
really able to do anything if you're soft,
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probably.
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Well, nature teaches us the opposite.
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For example, at the bottom of the ocean,
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under thousands of pounds
of hydrostatic pressure,
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a completely soft animal
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can move and interact
with a much stiffer object than him.
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He walks by carrying around
this coconut shell
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thanks to the flexibility
of his tentacles,
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which serve as both his feet and hands.
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And apparently,
an octopus can also open a jar.
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It's pretty impressive, right?
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But clearly, this is not enabled
just by the brain of this animal,
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but also by his body,
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and it's a clear example,
maybe the clearest example,
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of embodied intelligence,
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which is a kind of intelligence
that all living organisms have.
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We all have that.
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Our body, its shape,
material and structure,
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plays a fundamental role
during a physical task,
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because we can conform to our environment
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so we can succeed in a large
variety of situations
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without much planning
or calculations ahead.
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So why don't we put
some of this embodied intelligence
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into our robotic machines,
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to release them from relying
on excessive work
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on computation and sensing?
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Well, to do that, we can follow
the strategy of nature,
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because with evolution,
she's done a pretty good job
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in designing machines
for environment interaction.
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And it's easy to notice that nature
uses soft material frequently
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and stiff material sparingly.
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And this is what is done
in this new field or robotics,
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which is called "soft robotics,"
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in which the main objective
is not to make super-precise machines,
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because we've already got them,
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but to make robots able to face
unexpected situations in the real world,
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so able to go out there.
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And what makes a robot soft
is first of all its compliant body,
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which is made of materials or structures
that can undergo very large deformations,
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so no more rigid links,
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and secondly, to move them,
we use what we call distributed actuation,
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so we have to control continuously
the shape of this very deformable body,
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which has the effect
of having a lot of links and joints,
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but we don't have
any stiff structure at all.
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So you can imagine that building
a soft robot is a very different process
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than stiff robotics,
where you have links, gears, screws
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that you must combine
in a very defined way.
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In soft robots, you just build
your actuator from scratch
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most of the time,
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but you shape your flexible material
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to the form that responds
to a certain input.
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For example, here,
you can just deform a structure
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doing a fairly complex shape
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if you think about doing the same
with rigid links and joints,
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and here, what you use is just one input,
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such as air pressure.
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OK, but let's see
some cool examples of soft robots.
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Here is a little cute guy
developed at Harvard University,
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and he walks thanks to waves
of pressure applied along its body,
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and thanks to the flexibility,
he can also sneak under a low bridge,
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keep walking,
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and then keep walking
a little bit different afterwards.
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And it's a very preliminary prototype,
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but they also built a more robust version
with power on board
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that can actually be sent out in the world
and face real-world interactions
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like a car passing it over it ...
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and keep working.
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It's cute.
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(Laughter)
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Or a robotic fish, which swims
like a real fish does in water
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simply because it has a soft tail
with distributed actuation
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using still air pressure.
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That was from MIT,
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and of course, we have a robotic octopus.
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This was actually one
of the first projects
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developed in this new field
of soft robots.
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Here, you see the artificial tentacle,
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but they actually built an entire machine
with several tentacles
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they could just throw in the water,
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and you see that it can kind of go around
and do submarine exploration
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in a different way
than rigid robots would do.
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But this is very important for delicate
environments, such as coral reefs.
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Let's go back to the ground.
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Here, you see the view
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from a growing robot developed
by my colleagues in Stanford.
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You see the camera fixed on top.
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And this robot is particular,
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because using air pressure,
it grows from the tip,
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while the rest of the body stays
in firm contact with the environment.
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And this is inspired
by plants, not animals,
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which grows via the material
in a similar manner
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so it can face a pretty large
variety of situations.
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But I'm a biomedical engineer,
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and perhaps the application
I like the most
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is in the medical field,
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and it's very difficult to imagine
a closer interaction with the human body
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than actually going inside the body,
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for example, to perform
a minimally invasive procedure.
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And here, robots can be
very helpful with the surgeon,
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because they must enter the body
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using small holes
and straight instruments,
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and these instruments must interact
with very delicate structures
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in a very uncertain environment,
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and this must be done safely.
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Also bringing the camera inside the body,
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so bringing the eyes of the surgeon
inside the surgical field
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can be very challenging
if you use a rigid stick,
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like a classic endoscope.
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With my previous research group in Europe,
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we developed this
soft camera robot for surgery,
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which is very different
from a classic endoscope,
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which can move thanks
to the flexibility of the module
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that can bend in every direction
and also elongate.
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And this was actually used by surgeons
to see what they were doing
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with other instruments
from different points of view,
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without caring that much
about what was touched around.
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And here you see the soft robot in action,
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and it just goes inside.
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This is a body simulator,
not a real human body.
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It goes around.
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You have a light, because usually,
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you don't have too many lights
inside your body.
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We hope.
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(Laughter)
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But sometimes, a surgical procedure
can even be done using a single needle,
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and in Stanford now, we are working
on a very flexible needle,
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kind of a very tiny soft robot
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which is mechanically designed
to use the interaction with the tissues
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and steer around inside a solid organ.
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This makes it possible to reach
many different targets, such as tumors,
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deep inside a solid organ
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by using one single insertion point.
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And you can even steer around
the structure that you want to avoid
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on the way to the target.
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So clearly, this is a pretty
exciting time for robotics.
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We have robots that have to deal
with soft structures,
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so this poses new
and very challenging questions
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for the robotics community,
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and indeed, we are just starting
to learn how to control,
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how to put sensors
on these very flexible structures.
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But of course, we are not even close
to what nature figured out
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in millions of years of evolution.
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But one thing I know for sure:
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robots will be softer and safer,
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and they will be out there helping people.
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Thank you.
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(Applause)
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ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Giada Gerboni - Biomedical engineer
Giada Gerboni works in surgical robotics, supporting surgeons with new flexible robotic devices in order to make once impossible operations a reality.

Why you should listen

Giada Gerboni is a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, in the Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine (CHARM) Lab. Gerboni is working on the design and control of needle-sized flexible robots, work that aims to improve current percutaneous tumor ablation procedures. As she says: "One of the most exciting parts of this research is to enable surgical operations in ways that, not long ago, had not yet been conceived."

Gerboni received BE and MS degrees in biomedical engineering from the University of Pisa and a PhD in biorobotics from The BioRobotics Institute of Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy. During her PhD, she specialized in surgical robotics, studying and developing innovative strategies for the actuation and sensing of soft and flexible instruments for applications in MIS (Minimally Invasive Surgery).

A new branch of robotics, called "soft robotics," is expanding the boundaries of robotic applications. Soft robotics faces the grand challenge of increasing the capabilities of robots to make them more suitable for physical interactions with the real world. It involves use of soft and flexible materials, deformable sensors and very different control strategies than traditional robots, which are designed to work in well-defined and confined environments. Gerboni has been involved in this field from the time of her PhD, and since then she has been exploring its potential in the medical/surgical area, where safe robot-environment interaction is crucial. 

More profile about the speaker
Giada Gerboni | Speaker | TED.com