Research, robotics and communication

Per Alicia Casals

COVID-19 has made us reflect and consider the need to change the way we live, act and face the challenges humanity faces. In the research and business environment, and promoted by national and international organisations, time and effort is devoted to advancing to provide solutions to social and global problems. Many topics are of concern, including climate change, the ability to respond to disasters and the capacity to help elderly or disabled people. Clearly, technology and robotics are key to provide solutions.

COVID-19 has caught us off guard, although in retrospect we can see that it was foreseeable and that we had sufficient indications that something like this could happen. Recent years have seen an increase in society’s awareness that governments and those with power are not acting decisively enough to face the increasing challenges of the world. People have begun to express this and to take forceful actions to drive the search for solutions.

If we look at robotics, the evolution of this field has generatedgreat expectations of contributing to improving the wellbeing of humanity. However, it has also caused great disappointment. We hope, for example, that the greater productivity brought about by robotisation will lead to greater wealth and if social justice is applied, everyone should benefit. However, we can also confirm the limitations of robotics in practice. One example is the lack of response capacity to the serious accident in Fukushima in 2011. In this case, no response was available, despite the fact that disasters such as earthquakes and explosions had already been considered and great efforts had been made in robotics to be able to respond. Although Japan has advanced in robotics to face major challenges of humanity, including in assistive robotics to look after elderly people in an ageing society, it did not have a response with robotics that was at the level of technological development in the country to face a disaster of such great magnitude. Rescue robots had been developed for emergencies, particularly after the earthquake in Kobe in 1995 and the attack on the World Trade Center of New York in 2001. However, the possibility of a disaster happening is so uncertain that the major investment needed to face a potential emergency without knowing where, when and how it could take place meant that in Fukushima the technology that had been developed was not ready.

With COVID-19 it has been different. Although situations such as this were talked about hypothetically, pandemics or mass infections had already occurred in more or less localised zones, and months before the illness had begun to expand in China, we did not prepare for it. The lack of response was at the level of large equipment such as complex robots, as well as availability problems with elements as simple as masks themselves.

Considering the above, we could reflect on two points. First, the social perception of technology and specifically robotics, and second the capacity of the technology market to react to such evident needs.

The field of robotics inspires mixed reactions in society. On the one hand, the reaction is negative, with fears such as: Will robots take our jobs?, Will robots be intelligent and turn against us?, Will robots dehumanise care of the elderly or people with special needs? On the other hand, perceptions are positive with expectations about the contributions of robotics, including desires that range from robots cleaning our homes to carrying out tasks that are hard and hazardous for people to undertake, such as rescue and recovery in disaster situations.

If we link this to COVID-19, with the collapse caused by the great demand for staff and the risk of infection for those in contact with infected people, robotics emerges as a key factor. In this case, urgent healthcare is clearly a priority over humanisation in care, as the illness itself prevents close contact between the carer (and visitors) and the patient. Technology provides digital alternatives to partly make up for this lack. The topic of treating people with or without Covid-19 sparks social debate. Does technology dehumanise? Or does it help to free staff from routine care and the most unpleasant tasks so that they can provide more human attention that cannot be given by a robot? The result of this shared care could also help to preserve the independence and privacy of the patient. The pandemic has increased the perception of this need for assistance. Therefore, it is a good time to try to improve the social perception of what robotics can offer. The response of the research environment and industry – providing the most basic solutions such as 3D printing of parts to adapt masks or mobile communication devices and more complex solutions including ventilators with a short life that can be manufactured rapidly, and mobile robots for disinfection or services – has created a good environment to build trust in technology and the desire of people to search for solutions with great effort and speed.

So, research and development must have the right focus, searching for solutions that are not just viable technologically, but also operationally practical, both with regard to operability and cost. This makes the difference between robots that are affordable for everyone or not. If they are not, they create even more inequalities. Hence, real possibilities of robotics should be assessed well, and we should know how to communicate them appropriately. The pandemic has increased the visibility of applications of robotics in hospital services, for example in the delivery of drugs, and robots have also emerged with the capacity to take patients’ measurements and data, disinfection robots, etc. However, it is easy to create excessive expectations unless we carefully weigh up effective operability under real conditions and assess the pros and cons. News articles are attractively biased towards a more positive vision of what technology can contribute or its current state of development. In the long-term, this creates disenchantment and confusion because people cannot see the real situation clearly enough, with the current scope of robotics. Therefore, we have two challenges: to progress towards more operational, practical, affordable robots and to communicate about them clearly, taking a lot of care with scientific communication.

Article published on 28 October on the website Fulls d’enginyeria