William Peine

You are going to feel a slight bit of pressure …” is a doctor’s polite code for “this is going to hurt.” Imagine if the relationship were reversed: a doctor feeling the sudden pinch. With the help of Bill Peine PhD ’99, surgeons could soon use tactile feedback from robotic surgical devices to help them better diagnose conditions or even make minute and critical adjustments when operating on tissue.

Peine, an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering, plans to make robotic-assisted operations more common by developing a smaller, smarter, and cheaper class of tools for everyday use in the OR. In addition to their bulk and complexity, current models remain out of reach because of their high cost—over $1 million. With continued advances in technology, he envisions future surgeons calling for their “bots” as often as often as they now do for their scalpels.

At Harvard, Peine was part of Gordon McKay Professor of Engineering Rob Howe’s close-knit Biorobotics lab, a group focused on sensing and mechanical design in motor control of robots and humans. “Harvard definitely has a family feel to it. As a grad student you know most all the faculty in the department,” Peine says. No doubt he will instill such values into his future robots—and with careful control, patients may never feel the sting of the needle again.

Let’s trace your educational trajectory. You started at Purdue as an undergraduate.

I come from a long tradition of Boilermakers [the nickname for Purdue alumni]. My grandparents graduated from Purdue in 1929 and 1930. My dad graduated in 1959, and all three of my uncles graduated from Purdue.

Then you traveled east and pursued your Ph.D. at Harvard.

When I popped up from the T [in Harvard Square], I was inspired. The buildings, trees, and feel of the Yard were captivating. I randomly walked into a building and asked if they had engineering. Within minutes I was wandering my way to Pierce Hall. The first sentence in the DEAS pamphlet was “Harvard prides itself on multidisciplinary research.” That was enough for me!

Then, after a period working in the high-tech and medical industries, you returned “home” again.

The culture at Purdue has changed since I graduated. Opportunities for multidisciplinary research are everywhere and strongly encouraged with dollars and upper-level support. My return to Purdue was motivated in large part by this.

Now that you’re settled, you are exploring the boundaries of the human-machine interface. Who’s in control?

I like to say that the surgeon will always be the primary actuator in the system. It will be a long time before surgical robots act like industrial robots and process patients autonomously. A robot may guide the surgeon’s hand and make minor corrections, but the interaction with the patient is still the “art.”

You certainly have mastered the art of balancing multiple roles: researcher, entrepreneur, and teacher.

I love being the hub of a wheel and stretching myself to unite different people and ideas. Given the shift to a global economy and the rise of a better-trained international workforce, I think future engineers in the U.S. must have a systems-level mindset.

Speaking of work, how have you been influenced by the corporate world?

Having been on the “front lines” of surgical robot development in industry, I learned how to listen to the customer, understand the economics of the problem, and appreciate the challenge of medical device documentation and approval.

I think these experiences certainly help me focus my research, but they also translate into my mentorship of graduate students and my classroom teaching. I can honestly say, “This is what they do in the real world,” and then explain why and give a personal example. Students eat this up.

But doesn’t the real world get in the way of building an android like Data from Star Trek?

Economic justifications for robots that look and act like humans are hard to come by. Having said that, these machines fascinate us. I saw a NOVA special on Mark Raibert’s running robots in the MIT Leg Lab when I was a kid. Way cool stuff to a 12-year-old. I since have met Mark and worked with his company, Boston Dynamics. Truth be told, he still inspires me.

In other words, humans, unlike the Tin Man, still win out on having heart.

Our brain runs at 10Hz. Our individual muscle fibers and sensory organs are pretty crappy compared to sensors and actuators we use in robots. Yet we can do amazing things. We have so much to learn about ourselves.