Right now, telemedicine could be key to keeping frontline healthcare workers safe. To that effect, plenty of robots have been deployed to help hospitals remotely monitor patients, disinfect surfaces, make deliveries, and bring food to quarantined people. Now, Boston Dynamics is jumping on this bandwagon with its nightmare robot dog, Spot. To that, we say: Please, no.
Today, the firm best known for its uncanny, somewhat frightening bots announced in a blog that it’s working with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to see if its Spot robot can assist with reducing healthcare workers’ exposure to covid-19. “Today marks the second week of Spot’s presence at a local Boston facility, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where the medical team uses the robot as a mobile telemedicine platform, allowing healthcare providers to remotely triage patients,” the company said in a statement. “We’re listening to their feedback on how Spot can do more but are encouraged by reports that using the robot has helped their nursing staff minimize time exposed to potentially contagious patients.”
That’s a fancy way of saying the nightmare dog has been modified so you can stick an iPad and a two-way radio on it.
It’s not that the impulse to help is bad. Right now, Spot is being used to help doctors remotely videoconference with potential covid-19 patients in tents for initial assessments. Objectively, that’s a good thing: Spot is finally contributing something to the world other than my nightmares.
However, Boston Dynamics admits that Spot is currently not equipped to do much more than that. After all, this is a bot with more obvious potential for military or police applications than hospital work. To better help healthcare workers, the company still has to figure out how and if Spot can remotely complete medical tasks like measuring body temperature, respiratory rate, pulse rate, and oxygen saturation. The company is also looking into ways the bot can disinfect surfaces via a UV-C light. Great ideas, truly. But, there are also plenty of other available robots that have already figured this out and are being deployed globally.
In Italy, there’s Tommy, a robotic nurse that’s being used in six hospitals in the Lombardy region, the epicenter of the outbreak there. This bot, in addition to looking a bit more friendly, has built-in monitors, tablets, and microphones—and can already measure blood pressure and oxygen saturation for ICU patients, including those on ventilators. Likewise, China has deployed UVD Robots from Denmark to disinfect patient rooms—and these robots had been in the works for four years before they first started being sold in 2018. Not only are they autonomous, but they can also reportedly disinfect a room in 10-15 minutes and were specifically designed to help reduce infection rates in hospitals. A hospital in Shenyang, China, also used robot nurses to deliver food to patients in isolation wards.
There are plenty of teleconferencing, medical, and disinfectant robots currently out in the world—ones that have already gone through rigorous testing and development and don’t need to be jury-rigged to be immediately useful in this crisis. Even Boston Dynamics admits that perhaps Spot is not the ideal bot for this specific application. “In many instances, we imagine wheeled or tracked robots may be a better solution for these applications,” the company writes in its statement, which further points out that “users should not have to care about the details of robot mobility.”
Spot decked out with an iPad makes for a great photo, but the more helpful thing in Boston Dynamics’ announcement is that it’s open-sourcing its work and working with Clearpath Robotics, a Canadian field robotics firm, to help frontline workers. Another plus is none of the tech developed would be reliant on the company’s hardware or software. That sort of collaborative effort is legitimately wonderful to see. It’d also be great if Boston Dynamics and its new overlord, Softbank, put its considerable engineering abilities and resources toward a future healthcare robot—although, just a suggestion, maybe a future Boston Dynamics healthcare bot could be one that doesn’t inspire a sense of dread?