Although Doug Weber joined the faculty in Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering this fall, he is no stranger to Pittsburgh. The seasoned professor and researcher spent 15 years working in the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. There, he built a multi-disciplinary research program combining neuroscience, engineering, and medicine to develop neural prosthetic technologies to help people recover from stroke, spinal cord injury, and limb loss.
“My research has always focused on studying how the brain senses and controls movement in our arms and legs—the simple act of reaching and grasping a cup of coffee engages dozens of muscles and millions of neurons that communicate with each other through the neural networks in our spinal cord and brain to generate smooth and efficient actions,” Weber said.
His approach is to understand how the nervous system processes and communicates information about movement and what changes occur in these neural networks after disease or injury. Such knowledge is crucial for engineering new solutions to restore function to the arms and legs.
“Many injuries result in the loss of function in the arms and/or legs—stroke, spinal cord injury, and amputations are common causes and create huge barriers to independent living," Weber explained. "Fortunately, we can build robotic devices that can assist movement in paralyzed limbs and even build robotic arms that physically replace a missing limb. The actions of those robots can in many ways mimic the actions of the human counterpart."
A challenge in his work is figuring out how to connect the robotic limb to the person so that they can control and feel the robot as if it were a natural part of their body. "In order for these devices to be truly useful, we need to build connections with the nervous system, which is what enables us to move and feel," he said. His goal is to combine engineering and neuroscience research to solve these and other challenges related to control and sensation in humans and robotics.
The simple act of reaching and grasping a cup of coffee engages dozens of muscles and millions of neurons that communicate with each other....Doug Weber, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University
Robots are already used in limited capacities to protect people from dangerous tasks like disaster recovery operations in hazardous environments. Weber sees a role for them in health care where frontline workers face a higher risk of exposure to infectious diseases. Today's coronavirus pandemic offers an example.
"Dedicated people are performing essential functions in caring for patients, who themselves are exposed to infection risk when they seek care," Weber said. "Wouldn’t it be great if we could offer robotic caregivers, operated by humans from a remote location to protect both the caregiver and the patient from infection? Achieving this vision requires innovations, not only in robotics, but in the technology used to connect the human operators to the robots.”
A challenge for robotics engineers is in making robots more intelligent and aware. Humans are very sensitive—our entire bodies are loaded with millions of sensory neurons that enable us to see, hear, and feel the objects in our environment. Our brain relies on these sensors to perceive the world and make intelligent decisions about how to move. By comparison, robots are numb and dumb—they have limited awareness of the world and are not intelligent enough to know how to adapt their behaviors to operate safely and effectively in unpredictable situations.
At Carnegie Mellon, Weber plans to work closely with collaborators in neuroscience, computer science, and engineering to build machines that can move like humans and also sense and reason, enabling them to work safely and effectively alongside humans or independently. He started his research at CMU this fall and will teach classes in the spring 2021 semester.
While the physical distance from Pitt to CMU may be small, Weber said the move feels like a leap. “CMU has a truly incredible legacy of disruptive innovation—from building one of the first nodes of the Internet to creating cars that can drive themselves, CMU Tartan can be found in the fabric of ideas and technologies that have transformed the way we live, work, and play, he said. “The fusion of neuroscience and robotics has the potential to create not only smarter machines, but healthier, happier people.”
Weber earned his bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering at the Milwaukee School of Engineering and his Ph.D. in bioengineering from Arizona State University. From 2013-2017, he served as Program Manager at DARPA where he developed and managed a portfolio of neurotechnology research programs in support of President Obama’s BRAIN initiative. He directs the Neuro-Mechatronic Interfaces Lab at Carnegie Mellon University and holds a joint appointment with the Neuroscience Institute.