If the age of the coronavirus is anything, it’s surreal. And one of the most surreal things yet is happening at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where help has arrived not from extra human medical professionals, but in the form of famous Boston Dynamics robot dog Spot, now traipsing around with a tablet for a face. Spot’s new job is to be an avatar for hospital workers, who remotely operate the machine and speak to patients through the tablet, keeping staffers at a safe distance from sick people.
And even more remarkably, the patients haven’t been freaking out and noping right back home. “Part of it may be that we're in this strange world of Covid, where it's almost like anything goes,” says Dr. Peter Chai, of the hospital’s department of emergency medicine. “I think everybody, at least at this point, is starting to get the fact that we're trying to limit exposure.”
Boston Dynamics officials will be the first to tell you that they aren’t 100 percent sure what Spot will turn out to be good for. The company only started leasing the machine late last year, and is relying in part on customers to experiment with which jobs Spot can do well. Surveying construction sites and running security details are high on the list. But working in a hospital comes with a vast and unique set of challenges.
One is determining how Spot is limited by its hardware. The promise of robots in the age of the new coronavirus is that, theoretically, they’re the ideal medical professionals. They don’t get sick, they don’t need breaks, and they can do menial tasks like delivering supplies. All of these would free up real doctors and nurses to tend to patients. But in 2020, medical robots are still a bit crude. They require human help if they get stuck in a hallway, for instance.
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What makes Spot special is its famously deft footwork. A wheeled robot might have a hard time navigating the tent in which they’re triaging Covid-19 patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Instead, an operator can pilot Spot remotely through lines of patients, talking through their symptoms without worrying that the robot is going to smash into people or sensitive equipment. (The robot uses cameras around its body to automatically avoid obstructions.)
Still, at the moment Spot can’t do much else to help in the triage tent. Boston Dynamics engineers are hoping that at some point they might enable it to use a thermal camera to take patients’ temperatures. Another idea is to strap a UV light to its back to disinfect hospital rooms. But that’s another hardware limitation: It takes a lot of power to do that, which will quickly drain Spot’s battery. Is that tradeoff worth it? “These are the types of design questions that we ask health care professionals, about what they would actually use in the field, before we actually start building a new design here,” says Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics.
The company is open-sourcing this work for other roboticists to deploy using their own devices. (Not Spot’s underlying code for how it moves around in a hospital setting, mind you. More like the code for Spot’s sensors that can help other machines remotely interview patients.) “The broader focus that we have is that Spot might not be the right solution, but the tools that we've developed for this application are generalizable, and could be used with any other mobile robot,” says Perry.
Take it from Boston Dynamics: Their experiments with Spot in real-world jobs have shown that you can’t just deploy a robot to do any old task. The company has had clients ask, for instance, to deploy the robot for surveillance, but that’s sometimes a job a simple security camera could handle. And you have to be especially careful in an environment as sensitive as a hospital. For one thing, just because a robot can’t get sick doesn’t mean it can’t get others sick. You have to disinfect its surfaces periodically. And remember that it, too, breathes: A robot’s fans might blow the virus around, just as our own human sneezes do.
Still, this pandemic is an unprecedented and powerful proving ground for robots. “It's an interesting time, in that technological innovations that typically take months and months to even start in a hospital setting are now getting spun up within a matter of days,” says Chai, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “I think after we get a handle on Covid, this will fundamentally change the way we practice medicine, especially in emergency medicine.”
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A huge part of that is studying how people are reacting to the machines, a field known as human-robot interaction. It’s highly unlikely that robots will ever completely replace doctors and nurses, not because the technology won’t get there, but because we won’t want it to. So much of a medical professional’s job is interacting with patients, comforting them and walking them through difficult decisions. A robot cannot understand these complexities.
The patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have so far been taking well to Spot, but that doesn’t mean everyone will appreciate the robot or feel comfortable using it as a conduit to discuss medical problems. People might know Spot from Boston Dynamics’ videos of its incredible feats of athleticism. “Therefore, people may have all sorts of initial feelings about the robot like curiosity, delight, mistrust, or fear,” says Julie Carpenter, a roboticist and research fellow at the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “None of these reactions are abnormal in what is already an abnormal situation involving pandemics and robots. Most people have not interacted with a robot like this before. It’s a novel situation.”
Spot’s foray into emergency telemedicine may be one of the stranger outcomes of the Covid-19 crisis so far, but in some ways perhaps it isn't surprising. “The unfortunate truth is crisis situations have always pushed technology forward, whether it’s in war or pandemics,” Carpenter says. “Robots are great at doing things we don’t want to do, are dangerous for us to do, or when they can do something better than we could.”
Spot is great at not getting sick, to be sure. Soon, we’ll see if it can help people get well.