President Barack Obama speaks at Carnegie Mellon University on Thursday as part of the White House Frontiers Conference.

President Barack Obama speaks at Carnegie Mellon University on Thursday as part of the White House Frontiers Conference.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

CMU and Pitt show us what the future will look like at Obama’s Frontiers Conference

Snake monsters, a Socially Aware Robot Assistant and more.

Updated 5:47 p.m.

President Barack Obama was in Pittsburgh today — but not to stump for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Instead, he was here for a conference.

The president went to the White House Frontiers Conference on the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University campuses. From health care to space to robot assistants, the conference was all about the latest technology and the future.

Want to know what the future looks like? We asked exhibitors from CMU and Pitt.

These are just four of the inventions they had on display throughout the conference. An exhibit hall was open to the public from 9 to 11 a.m., that featured more robots, health innovations and NASA displays to reflect the themes of the conference. (See the list of exhibits.)

Snake robot and snake monster: 3 to 5 years

Carnegie Mellon University Bio Robotics Laboratory students demonstrate the Snake Robot and Snake Monster at the White House Frontiers Conference.

Carnegie Mellon University Bio Robotics Laboratory students demonstrate the Snake Robot and Snake Monster at the White House Frontiers Conference.

Jasmine Goldband / THE INCLINE

Right now, if there is a place that’s too dangerous for humans to go or an opening is too small for humans — like in a collapsed building — the only choice is to use a cable or a camera on a stick, said Matt Travers, co-director of the Biorobotics Lab at CMU where the robots were developed.

But the 2-inch diameter snake robot can go into those areas. It can be used for search and rescue as well as inspections at oil refineries and nuclear facilities, Travers said. Plus it can be used for archaeology, too, and has been to the pyramids in Giza.

The snake “monster,” however, can walk up and down steps and can be converted to have fewer legs or become a snake if needed, he said.

Travers said the hope is that robots are out helping with inspections — such as seals on pipes — within three to five years.

Flying Robot: 5 years

Like the snake robot and snake monster, the flying robot goes where people can’t. The difference is that this robot can go higher by flying (duh).

It can be used for hard to reach locations where GPS doesn’t work, like under bridges or in tunnels, said Sebastian Scherer, systems scientist with CMU, who worked on the flying robot, which is part of the Aria Project at CMU.

He said the robot can map things and be a tool for inspections. Scherer said that in about five years, it could be used by transportation departments.

Life-like, robotic arm: at least 5 to 10 years

University of Pittsburgh bioengineering graduate student John Downey holds a computer chip with points that get inserted into the brain. The tips record neurons enabling those with spinal cord injuries to control a robotic arm.

University of Pittsburgh bioengineering graduate student John Downey holds a computer chip with points that get inserted into the brain. The tips record neurons enabling those with spinal cord injuries to control a robotic arm.

Jasmine Goldband / THE INCLINE

For people with spinal injuries, this technology could one day help them regain use of their limbs. But it’s currently in the early stages, said Jen Collinger, an assistant professor at Pitt who works in the Rehab Neural Engineering Labs.

Currently, the device works with a small computer chip implanted into the brain of a person with a spinal cord injury. That chip is connected to a port on the outside of the person’s skull.

Collinger and others at the lab use this to track brain activity. She said eventual goal is to have people with spinal cord injuries able to use their arms again.

But in the meantime, they might be able to have the arm device attached to their wheelchair and be able to move that. 

The device is still being perfected and will take five to ten years of clinical trials before it can be used, Collinger said.

SARA: ??? 

SARA is a personal assistant on a computer screen, but as her name implies, this Socially Aware Robot Assistant is more human-like than typical computer bots. Rememeber SmarterChild?

Sit down in front of SARA and she picks up on smiles and head nods and adjusts to your speech patterns, adding praise or banter if that’s how you chat with her, said Jackie Yeung, a CMU senior who works in the CMU Articulab where SARA was created.

SARA can be used to help teachers when they are short staffed or to answer questions from CMU students on campus. And since she’s socially aware, it’s easier to chat with her.

Yeung said SARA is just starting to make public appearances, but the hope is to have her out more and more often.

And here’s what else happened at the conference:

From 8:30 a.m. to noon, there were five “tracks” of the conference happening at the same time. You can read more details about each track and watch a recording of each:

After that was the plentary track that covered a variety of topics from health to the economy to space and more.

Obama was the last speaker of that session and of the day (naturally), before he sat on a presidential panel on brain science and medical information. You can watch that here.

President Barack Obama joins a panel at the White House Frontiers Conference at Carnegie Mellon University with Atul Gawande, Kafui Dzirasa, Riccardo Sabatini and 
Zoë Keating.

President Barack Obama joins a panel at the White House Frontiers Conference at Carnegie Mellon University with Atul Gawande, Kafui Dzirasa, Riccardo Sabatini and Zoë Keating.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
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