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Can Your Robot Get Up and Walk Away? Or, the Challenge of Predicting the Latest Trends

August 20, 2014
by Mark Hagland
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While if may be difficult to predict how policy developments will pan out, it’s crucial for healthcare IT leaders to be open to all possibilities
Mark Hagland

I was fascinated to read an article in Science Daily about a robot that could build itself and then walk away—really. As noted in the August 7 edition of Science Daily, the online website for Science magazine, “A team of engineers used little more than paper and Shrinky Dinks™—the classic children’s toy that shrinks when heated—to build a robot that assembles itself into a complex shape in four minutes flat, and crawls away without any human intervention. The advance, described in Science Daily, “demonstrates the potential to quickly and cheaply build sophisticated machines that interact with the environment, and to automate much of the design and assembly process. The method draws inspiration from self-assembly in nature, such as the way linear sequences of amino acids fold into complex proteins with sophisticated functions.”

Senior author Rob Wood, Ph.D., a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Charles River professor of engineering at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), told Science Daily that

“Getting a robot to assemble itself autonomously and actually perform a function has been a milestone we’ve been chasing for many years.” His team, the publication reports, has included engineers and computer scientists from the Wyss Institute, SEAS, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

As Professor Wood went on to note, the work that he and his colleagues have been engaged in is not merely for the amusement of it. Instead, they are hoping to create technology that can be deployed in an automated way at great distances—specifically, in space and, potentially, on other planets.

I have to say that one of the things that particularly intrigued me about all this research is how the scientists involved combined high-technology engineering with the ancient art of origami, resulting in an innovation that could potentially revolutionize space exploration. How ingenious is that??

The question is, who can predict how different ideas and trends will come into being, or what important kernels of one development might affect other kernels of other developments that are initially unrelated to one another?

Such questions live not only in the realm of science and technology, but in the policy world here on earth, as well. For example, in this issue’s cover story, HCI Associate Editor Rajiv Leventhal speaks with a variety of national healthcare IT leaders to find out what their aspirations and expectations are for this fall’s federal legislative calendar.

There’s a lot going on, actually, particularly around reimbursement changes already falling into place, and others that might soon impact healthcare providers. As Leventhal writes in this issue’s cover story, “This whirl of activity at the federal level—paralleled by insurers’ efforts to support medical homes and ACOs—has motivated many provider organizations to actively prepare for the reimbursement changes that loom ahead. The new healthcare system is still taking shape, but it will clearly involve increased financial and clinical accountability. As such, a plethora of legislation and policy issues are now present—and will continue to emerge—for patient care organizations of all sizes.”

Much remains to be learned about how the meaningful use trajectory under the HITECH Act will shake out, as well. The bottom line? It can often be virtually impossible to predict how specific developments will pan out. But by keeping to the big-picture view, healthcare IT leaders can be prepared for what is to come—including out in the wider world, in which amazing developments like the creation of self-constructing robots—are happening every day.