Life with A.I.

COVID-19 pandemic proves the need for 'social robots,' 'robot avatars' and more, say experts

Hospital equipment is seen in an emergency field hospital to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic in Central Park on March 30, 2020 in New York City.
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One of the consequences of people being told to stay home to slow the spread of coronavirus is loneliness. And a collection of 13 robotics experts from around the world have a suggestion for how to solve that: a robot pal. 

The innovation is just one of many mentioned in an open letter by the global contingent of robotics experts who suggest that the coronavirus pandemic should serve as a catalyst for the increased use and development of robots.

"Now the impact of COVID-19 may drive further research in robotics to address risks of infectious diseases," says the statement, published March 25 in Science Robotics magazine. 

The statement aims to inspire more funding to develop these varieties of robots, many of which it became clear were needed during the 2015 Ebola crisis.

"[W]ithout sustained research efforts robots will, once again, not be ready for the next incident," says the statement. "By fostering a fusion of engineering and infectious disease professionals with dedicated funding we can be ready when (not if) the next pandemic arrives."

Here are some of the ways robots are being used and could be used in future pandemics.

Robot-controlled ultraviolet light to disinfect surfaces

One of the ways people can be infected with coronavirus is by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their face, as the virus can live on metal, glass or plastic surfaces for days. According to the scientists' statement, ultraviolet light has been shown to "be effective in reducing contamination" on surfaces in hospitals.

In fact, according to other experts, the intensity of UV light needed to kill coronavirus can be harmful to humans. But, the scientists say large and small autonomous or remote-controlled robots could be developed to locate and constantly sterilize frequently touched surfaces with ultraviolet light.

Automatic temperature-taking in public places

Fever is an overwhelmingly common symptom of COVID-19. Automated camera systems used in conjunction with thermal sensors and vision algorithms on autonomous or remotely operated robots could be used to monitor temperatures of patients in hospitals, the scientists say.

CNBC Make It previously reported on robots used in a field hospital a In Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beijing-based robotics company CloudMinds sent 14 robots to help with patient care, and one of those systems measured people's temperatures as they entered (video below).

CloudMinds' infrared thermometry system checking temperatures
CloudMinds' infrared thermometry system checking temperatures

Tracking people's movement to for 'contact tracing'

While there will no doubt be privacy concerns with any tracking technology, the roboticists say combining existing security systems with facial recognition software could allow authorities to retrace the steps of patients who tested positive for COVID-19 and contact others who might be at risk, which is known as contact tracing. 

Performing nasal swabs

Testing for coronavirus involves inserting a swab fairly deep into a patient's nasal cavity.

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There are parts of the process that puts humans at risk of contracting the virus, including collecting the sample, handling the sample, transfering the sample to the test location and the test itself.

"During a major outbreak, a key challenge is a lack of qualified staff to swab patients and process test samples," the scientists say. "Automated or robot-assisted nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swabbing may speed up the process, reduce the risk of infection, and free up staff for other tasks."

Drawing blood to check for antibodies

Patients can test positive for COVID-19 before they have symptoms. A blood test for antibodies (the protein produced when a pathogen is detected in the bloodstream that are used by the immune system), would enable testing before symptoms present, what the scientists called a "silent infection."

Robots that automate the process of drawing blood could reduce the risks to frontline medical personnel. Research is already being done on systems that use ultrasound imaging to identify veins in the forearm for blood draw.  

Drones delivering medicine

Autonomous drones and ground robots can be used to deliver medicine to patients who have coronavirus.

Also in the field hospital in Wuhan, China, CloudMinds robots were used to deliver food, drink and medicine to patients. 

Social robots making people less lonely

People staying home to "flatten the curve" of the pandemic can mean less social interaction for some, "which may have a negative impact on mental health," the scientists say. "Social robots" would provide social stimulation and interactions, in addition to providing reminders to follow treatment regimens. 

Developing a social robot is complicated, though. "This is a challenging area of development because social interactions require building and maintaining complex models of people, including their knowledge, beliefs, emotions, as well as the context and environment of the interaction," the scientists say. 

Attending conferences virtually with "robot avatars"

The coronavirus pandemic may end up being "the tipping point" in the prevalence of virtual gatherings, the roboticists say, particularly as 5G bandwidth connectivity and increasingly clear video camera equipment becomes widely available.  

"Rather than cancelling large international exhibitions and conferences, new forms of gathering—online rather than in-person attendance—may increase. Remote attendees may become accustomed to using robotic avatars and controls," the scientists say. "Eventually, many conferences may be available via high-definition low-latency virtual reality, with the attendees' virtual robot avatars fully mobile and immersed in the conference context. All of these modalities would reduce disease infection rates and carbon footprint simultaneously."

You can see the full statement and list of the roboticists who signed, here.

See also: 

Look inside the hospital in China where coronavirus patients were treated by robots
'Americans need cash now:' Coronavirus has lawmakers calling for UBI
Bernie Sanders: 'If you're a multimillionaire ... you're going to get through' the coronavirus pandemic

From the ICU front lines in Chicago
From the ICU front lines in Chicago