When he gets talking about his lab, Gary Hack sounds like he's composing science fiction — a mix of technological wonder and unsettling questions about machines rendering humanity useless.
Even the name of the space, the Dream Room, suggests epic horizons.
Here's the funny thing: Gary Hack is a dentist. Actually, he's a professor of dentistry at the University of Maryland. Yes, this futurist works in the realm of childhood nightmares, of medieval-looking metal devices and goopy gels that never actually taste like cherry or bubble gum.
But it's Hack's charge at the School of Dentistry to find the frontier.
In his space, computers take rapid-fire pictures of teeth and feed data to machines that carve crowns in a few minutes. Dental chairs adjust fluidly to the size of the patient and link digitally to consulting practitioners in other cities. Drawers full of instruments pop out when Hack's hand nears, saving him the trouble of touching unsanitary handles.
"It's going to be very, very different than what we've done for the last 170 years," Hack said. "I really believe we're on the cusp of dentistry's future, and it's coming at us so fast."
There are skeptics on the faculty and in the wider world of dentistry who believe Hack is overstating the pace of change. The equipment is too expensive, they say, to show up in many neighborhood practices. Hack remembers lecturing students on future technology back in 1986 and hearing a colleague wonder, "Why are we filling their heads with this nonsense?"
But the school's dean, Christian Stohler, has bought into the technology full force, arguing that students won't be prepared for long careers if they're not comfortable with all the gadgets. He wants Maryland to be known as a leader in introducing the latest equipment to a computer-savvy generation ready to run with it.
"The idea is to let students, in their first and second years, capture the essence of where their field is going," he said. "Our students deserve to understand the future."
Students seem to love the few hours they spend in the Dream Room, which opened with the school's new building on West Baltimore Street in 2006. Some have told Hack, "This is the most exciting day I've had in dentistry."
"It's unbelievable," said Juheon Seung, a rising fourth-year dental student. "It's almost like it does all of the work for you."
Seung believes the exposure will help him in the professional world. "I think the profession is becoming a lot more complex than your traditional mom-and-pop practice," he said. "Of the schools where I interviewed, Maryland was one of the most technologically advanced, and that's one of the main reasons I came."
Hack graduated from Maryland's dental school in 1979, a decidedly pre-digital age. But he always embraced technology with a glee that's apparent as he shows off one of the Dream Room's centerpiece devices — most donated by the manufacturers — known as a CAD/CAM machine.
In traditional dental offices, it takes at least two visits and a few weeks to get a crown. The dentist will place a tray of putty-like material in your mouth to make an impression of your teeth. The impression will be sent to a lab, where it will be used to create a stone model. Lab workers will build the crown to fit the replica and, about two weeks later, you will return to the dentist to have it cemented onto your tooth.
"Now, this is the future," said Hack, picking up a small metal wand.
He stuck the device into the mouth of a dummy patient and clicked three times. Within seconds, a finely detailed digital replica of the patient's teeth popped up on a nearby screen. With a few mouse clicks, Hack rotated the image for different vantage points and enlarged it. Then he double-clicked and used the mouse to draw the contours of the planned crown. It took him a matter of seconds to do work that would take hours in a traditional lab.
Once the computer had taken his input and built a virtual crown, Hack selected a tiny block of porcelain and placed it in a milling machine that looks like an incubator. He used a digital key to feed information on the crown, and the machine squirted sanitizing liquid across the porcelain block. Then, two diamond burrs began carving with imperceptible cuts. A perfectly grooved crown emerged from the porcelain block.
After 10 minutes, the crown is ready to go into a patient's mouth. What traditionally took weeks can be completed in one 90-minute visit.
Asked if dentists are courting their own doom by embracing technology that replaces their centuries-old craft, Hack does not deny the possibility.
"Did you see 'Terminator'?" he asked — maybe kidding, maybe not. "How smart do we want the computers to be?"