The pandemic has been good for one kind of worker: robots

Now that any job involving human contact is considered hazardous, demand for mechanical replacements has skyrocketed.

By David Berreby
Published 4 Sept 2020, 11:52 BST
Spot, a dog-like robot developed by Boston Dynamics, allows health workers at Brigham and Women's Hospital ...

Spot, a dog-like robot developed by Boston Dynamics, allows health workers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston to interact with patients—and even to measure their temperature, pulse, and oxygen saturation—from a safe distance.

Screen capture from Video by Farah Dadabhoy, Brigham and Women's Hospital

Spot, a four-legged robot about the size of a golden retriever, went on sale last year for industrial uses—inspecting construction sites, patrolling power plants, and other chores in places a wheeled robot can't go.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and Spot learned some new tricks.

In the past six months, Spots have delivered food to quarantined patients in Singapore, and danced around at a Japanese baseball game as a mechanical substitute for human fans. In Singapore last May, after a social-distance enforcement officer was stabbed by an unmasked man, a Spot was tested for the role of “safe distance ambassador” in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. There, a human worker, at a safe distance, used the robot to observe people and to play pre-recorded "let's keep Singapore healthy" reminders. (Read all about the robot revolution in the September issue of National Geographic.)

Meanwhile in Boston, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Spot equipped with an iPad greeted arrivals, enabling staff to screen prospective patients remotely. Other Spots outfitted with sensors allowed doctors and nurses to take temperatures, measure respiration, and even monitor blood oxygen levels without being in the same room as a patient.

All these experiments were a natural shift for a machine designed "to take people out of hazardous jobs," says Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Spot's creator, Boston Dynamics. In this pandemic, "hazardous job" now covers any activity that brings people together.

Photograph by Alvaro Barrientos, AP Photo

Demand for robots that can do human chores has skyrocketed around the world. As of early July, robots of all sorts were directly involved fighting the pandemic in at least 33 nations, according to Robotics for Infectious Diseases, an organisation of researchers. COVID-19 is driving robots into aspects of daily life where they've seldom or never been seen before.

The pandemic will pass some day. But the robots will probably stay.

"When you see the breadth of the use of robots across so many applications, I think this is our breakthrough moment," says Robin R. Murphy of Texas A&M, a leading scholar of "disaster robotics" and chair of Robotics for Infectious Diseases. "People who would have said it was stupid to use a robot to deliver food, now they're getting groceries with them. Small businesses are using them. We've never seen this before. Robots are becoming more pervasive."

First responders

In the pandemic's first few weeks, hospitals and clinics sought robots to respond to the immediate catastrophe, Murphy says —just as people have deployed robots after earthquakes, mine collapses, and terrorist attacks over the past 20 years. Last spring, hospitals in Europe, Asia, and North America were acquiring robots for "telemedicine" (using the robot to connect patients and doctors) and "telepresence," where patients use the robot to see and speak with loved ones. Others bought robots that independently enter a room and disinfect it with chemicals or ultraviolet light. Public-safety authorities dispatched robots (on streets or in the air) to disinfect public spaces and to look for people violating stay-inside orders.

Many roboticists—used to public fears about safety, privacy, creepiness or job losses—were surprised to see resistance to the machines evaporate.

"Things that would have maybe taken us six months are now opening up immediately, and regulations have been loosened at a surprisingly fast rate," says Anthony Nunez, whose company INF Robotics makes an eldercare robot called Rudy. Home-care agencies he deals with have had to cut back workers, Nunez says, because in a pandemic many elderly people no longer wish to have close contact with human aides.

A young girl disinfects her hands with sanitizer dispensed by a robot walking around Central World, an upmarket shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand.


Photograph by Gemunu Amarasinghe, AP Photo

Hospitals and other medical facilities now "are trying to run with minimum number of people, to minimise the exposure that people have to disease," says Andrea Thomaz, co-founder and CEO of Diligent Robotics, which makes a robot nurse assistant called Moxi. COVID-19 has made medical staff more aware than ever "how important it is to have their essential staff focused on the tasks at hand and not focused on any of the busy work that takes them away from patient care and clinical work," Thomaz says.

As the pandemic makes many people more accepting of robots, Murphy says, it's also making many roboticists more alert to ordinary people's needs. For example, one team of eager robot engineers approached an Italian hospital last spring with a design for a robot that could deliver food to patients. They soon learned that for isolated COVID-19 patients, mealtime “was the only time they saw people socially," Murphy explains.

Even before the pandemic, Medical City Heart Hospital in Dallas, Texas, was testing Moxi, a robot assistant designed to take some of the burden off nurses like Ming McDowell—by delivering samples to the lab, for example.

Photography by Spencer Lowell

So the roboticists switched problems. Instead of replacing the humans who delivered meals, they created a simple tele-presence robot that could visit patients and provide a live link to a loved one. The device was made from off-the-shelf parts, inexpensive, easy to maintain, and didn't require overworked hospital staff to spend any time on it. And patients and relatives loved being able to see and hear one another.

Ready or not

Not everyone is convinced a new robot age is dawning. Skeptics point out that even supposedly "autonomous" robots often need a human supervisor to jump in when the machine is stumped by the challenge of navigating streets, hospitals, warehouses, or homes. For now, most of the work COVID-19 created—in patient care, delivery, enforcement, and other areas—is still performed by people.

A different concern is that robots may prove to be too good at what they do—that they'll permit massive surveillance and privacy violation, or that they'll make it too easy to do harm to the environment in the name of pandemic response. Last winter flying robots in China were used to douse public places with disinfectants, Murphy noted. “We don’t know what the environmental impact has been,” she said in an email. “There has not been any data on which disinfectants are being used in what concentrations and whether there was any runoff into sewers and water supply."

Murphy and her colleagues recently surveyed reports in social media, journalism, and scholarly journals about robots’ use related to COVID-19. Out of 262 reports between March and July, 45 focused on ethical concerns, the survey revealed. Of those, 17 were about threats of excessive surveillance or violations of privacy.

Then, as always with robots, there are fears for people's jobs. In the spring, as the pandemic was ramping up, employers adopting robots were focused on protecting their employees, not replacing them. But that may be changing, Murphy says.

"Around June, we began to see a call for increased automation, not to increase capacity or handle surge but to handle worker loss," she says. Meatpacking plants, e-commerce warehouses, and other facilities are considering robot workers as a way to keep human employees safely distant from one another, Murphy says. "We may get some job displacement or job loss as a result. We don't know how that's going to turn out."

Still, people around the world appear more willing than ever to let robots do work once done by humans, and there are more robot makers than ever offering products in response. The COVID-19 pandemic has launched a global experiment in how, where, and why to insert robots into daily life.

"Times are good for robotics, although they're not good for us as a society," Antonio Bicchi, a professor of robotics at the University of Pisa, told a panel on robotics and COVID-19 in May, at the annual (and this year virtual) International Conference on Robotics and Automation. "For robotics, this is a time to help. And I think we are ready."


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