"The purpose of technology is to enable human ability," Cori Lathan, founder and CEO of Maryland engineering firm AnthroTronix, told an audience here at a two-day conference hosted by Smithsonian Magazine, called the "Future is Here," celebrating science fiction, outer space and the technologies of tomorrow.

From the International Space Station to the operating room, technology has enabled humans to achieve some amazing feats, but human-machine interaction should also enable cognitive and emotional abilities, Lathan said. [Super-Intelligent Machines: 7 Robotic Futures]

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“What will technology allow us to do in the future, or what will it force us to do?” Lathan said. She foresees positive developments. "I’m a techno-optimist."

Lathan grew up as a so-called maker, creating robots for children with cerebral palsy. Then came a spurt of advances in consumer electronics. Lathan started developing robots that could engage with kids with autism.

Today, wearable tech and computing power are advancing rapidly. One area that can leverage these technologies, Lathan asked, is health and medicine.

When a person goes to the doctor, the physician will take their temperature, measure their height and weight and take their blood pressure. But what about measuring mental health?

“We’re ignoring our brain,” Lathan said. If doctors could track brain health over time, they could detect changes, such as concussions, depression or Alzheimer’s disease.

While mind-reading technology may be far off, brain-computer interfaces are becoming more and more sophisticated, Lathan said. What if someday soon, a smartphone could record a person’s emotional state and display it to others? A teacher could gauge students’ attention, and a CEO could do the same with employees, Lathan said.

Already, smartphones help people eliminate disorientation when they’re trying to navigate an unfamiliar or complex place, such as the New York City subway system.

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In the future, robotic caretakers, similar to the robot Frank in the 2012 film "Robot & Frank," could help elderly people combat mental deterioration. If such robots could keep humans mentally sharp, they could radically change the aging process, Lathan said.

Lathan’s own father was showing signs of cognitive impairment, and was diagnosed with sleep apnea, a disorder that disrupts breathing during sleep, which prevents the brain from getting enough oxygen. A machine called a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) could keep her dad breathing smoothly, but she found he doesn’t always want to use it.

While a smartphone app could help Lathan’s father, what he really needs, she said, is a robot like Frank.

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