To automate, or not to automate? Robo-health-care?

A Glimpse of the Future?

Several recent mid-week posts have addressed aspects of the contemporary and projected issue of automation in the workplace–especially in the area of “machines taking over our jobs.”

A growing number of people think that artificially intelligent robots might take over jobs in white-collar professions, moving far beyond the traditional roles of “the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull,” as robotics expert Ryan Calo calls them. Today I want to talk about health care.

Exactly what do people mean, when they talk about robots “taking over” the jobs of doctors, nurses, or other health care workers? I’m not sure all mean the same things. One thing they almost certainly do not mean is Emergency Medical Holgram Mark I (as portrayed by actor Robert Picardo on TV’s Star Trek: Voyager from 1995-2001).

Don’t expect to meet any Emergency Medical Holograms in your neighborhood hospital anytime soon!

But it’s a question worth asking, all the same. Richard and Daniel Susskind noted in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article that “There are more monthly visits to the WebMD network, a collection of health websites, than to all the doctors in the United States.”

Okay. But is that a salient observation? A quick Internet check to research a question for free takes a whole lot less time, hassle and expense than a trip to see your doctor. I’m not sure this compares apples to apples, guys.

Also, I don’t know any health care professionals who greet with joy (or any expectation of an accurate analysis) the news that their patient looked up his problem on WebMD and has already diagnosed it, “so doctor, you just have to prescribe this kind of pill for me . . .”

Yeah, right. WebMD is a research resource, not a doctor, any more than FindLaw.Com is a lawyer.

Do medical websites such as WebMD actually erode trust between doctors and patients? A 2015 post on LiveClinic Healthcare Blog makes a point that in some cases they might.

However, the Susskinds’ research involved a comprehensive survey of the literature about changes in industry, automation technology, and society, as well as more than 100 interviews with experts in cutting-edge development from a variety of disciplines, so their analysis shouldn’t be discounted or ignored.

When they looked at all the various things doctors and other professionals do, they found that “when professional work is broken down into component parts, many of the tasks involved turn out to be routine and process-based. They do not in fact call for judgment, creativity, or empathy.” In other words, although we don’t have terribly creative or empathic robots currently, there are elements to a professional’s job which don’t require those traits. It’s not hard to make the leap to the idea of the doctor delegating those things to a machine.

It’s true that surgical robots can do many procedures a human surgeon simply could not. Very few of them currently involve autonomous robotics–a doctor still has his/her hands on the controls. But that could change as these machines grow more sophisticated. FW: Thinking has a really informative video on this topic that I hope you’ll find as interesting as I did (relax: no blood) :

There also are other uses for robots that may not exactly eliminate the human doctor’s role so much as extend it. Some retail pharmacy chains, such as CVS and Rite Aid, have been piloting in-store health kiosks. Robert Thompson of Rite Aid says his stores’ interface “pairs licensed healthcare providers with state-of-the-art technology to deliver a truly unique solution to consumers looking for convenient and quality healthcare.” 


Telemedicine has enjoyed a worldwide advent, out of necessity.  “Doctors are examining patients continents away with interactive robots and hi-tech visuals. These robots are fully mobile, with computer screens for heads and real-time video cameras for eyes and ears. Doctors operate them by using a joystick and wireless technology.”

The Doctor will see you now . . . via telemedicine. There’s still a human doctor in this equation, so it’s not exactly a replacement. You might note there’s also a real live human healthcare practitioner at the patient’s bedside as well. Robots have seen particularly robust adoption in Japanese hospitals.

Extending the role of doctors may become an absolute necessity in the near future. We’ve heard about a looming worldwide shortage of doctors for years, and in April 2016 the Association of American Medical Colleges pointed to strong indicators of coming shortages in the U.S., in several broad categories. We may end up coping with this in a variety of ways, including more care given by physicians’ assistants or nurse practitioners–or the use of telemedicine or other automated functions.

There’s a shortage of nurses, too, which is leading some observers to predict automation will move into that job category, too. In 2015 a headline on the Horizon Healthcare Staffing website rather chillingly proclaimed, “Robots will replace nurses sooner rather than later,” which I think would worry me if I worked for Horizon Healthcare Staffing. As with doctors, however, when you look at the details I think replace may be a stretch, at least in the near term. More like “assist” or “augment.”

Introducing Actroid-F, a robotic nurse created by Kokoro Co. Ltd. This robot is designed to provide bedside empathy to patients, but I fear she would seriously weird me out–she’s most definitely from Uncanny Valley territory, in my view! The Japanese, however, reportedly have a more comfortable cultural relationship with robots. I sure hope so.

The HHS article describes the entry of robots into the Japanese health care setting in glowing terms: “Robots already play a key role in Japanese hospitals and healthcare facilities. They are able to look after senior citizens, sing with them, and engage with them in other activities.” Maybe seniors like to sing with them; who knows? After all, the Japanese were the ones who invented karaoke.

However, a motivating factor for the increasing use of robots in Japan is the fear that as the Japanese population ages, there won’t be enough health care workers to take care of them if they don’t create robots to do so. I think if they insist on using exclusively Japanese health care workers they’re right, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

This is Panasonic’s Hospi Type R, essentially a self-driving medicine chest on wheels, “designed to move fragile or bulky medicine and equipment around a hospital.” Wi-fi, cameras, and preprogrammed maps help it navigate; it’s locked by a system that uses an ID security card for access. It was nicknamed “the pink Dalek”–clearly by someone who doesn’t have a clue about the Daleks‘ favorite one-word catchphrase!


In the Asian healthcare scene, “More and more, hospitals all over the world are realizing that robots are efficient messengers who transport materials like food, x-rays, and linens throughout the hospital, saving wear and tear on the feet of over-worked nurses and aides.” Or medicines–pharmacy robots on wheels!–as does the Hospi Type R, shown above.

To my mind a good argument for using robots in a nursing situation would be for tasks “that are physically very demanding and stressful for humans”  (All at once we’re back to Ryan Calo’s “three Ds”).

This is Robear, a prototype robot designed in an effort not to scare the living crap out of fragile elderly patients while it helps to transport them safely. Why a bear? It’s supposed to look “like a friendly polar bear.” Okay. Well, no uncanny valley problems here, anyway!

Not sure how Robear would work in real life? here’s a very short video:

Horizon Healthcare Staffing might not be able to get their hands on this nifty new tech fast enough, but I’ll be interested to see how well the public accepts Robear, the “pink Dalek,” Actroid-F, and their robotic kin.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it’s News, for the “vision of the future” graphic, and to Bonnie Hutchinson’s “Star Trek Voyager” Pinterest Board for the photo of Robert Picardo as EMH Mark I. 

I appreciated not only the photo of a doctor and patient talking to each other on LiveClinic’s interesting article “Do Computers erode Doctor and Patient Trust?” but also the article itself, which provides an interesting counterpoint to the Susskinds’ observation about WebMD. 

Many thanks to the Re-Tails Blog‘s post about health care robotics in retail pharmacies, for the photo of the telemedicine delivery robot with the hospital patient. 

My gratitude also goes out to WeirdAsiaNews for the photos of the robotic nurse Actroid-F, to The Verge for the photo of the Panasonic Hospi Type R, to NationalFutur, for the still photo of the Robear, and to WXYZ-TV Detroit and YouTube for the video of Robear in action. 

Moral and historical responsibilities

The Artdog Quotes of the Week:

Today I present a study in contrasts.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks for the global community on this one. United States leadership still persists in questioning the science to a greater extent than any other major nation. Including, unfortunately, this guy:

IMAGES: Many thanks to the World Economic Forum for the Ban Ki-moon quote (check the linked page for more good ones), and to Business Insider, CNN and Bill Nye for the quote graphic from the regrettable orange person. Unfortunately, Bill’s solution failed to be implemented effectively.

Water stress

The Artdog Images of Interest

Three major signals of climate change’s onset are increased rates and ferocity of fires, deepening drought, and increasingly violent storms. Today’s image focuses on drought.

A woman in India still can get a little water from her well, but she’s one of 300 million affected in the country during 2016.

As my Images of Interest series in February emphasized, the United Nations has identified access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water as a basic human right. Yet as drought gets entrenched in regions, this basic human need is not being met. India is one of those areas, but as the map below shows, it is far from alone in its plight.

A serious issue in India is the continued heavy water use by multinational corporations (MNCs) such as Pepsico, without recharging the water tables (as required by law). This is despite the “worst drought in living memory” and dramatic drops in local water tables near their bottling facilities.

The 2015 level of California’s Lake Oroville at the height of the recent drought was pretty impressive-looking, but as we know, once the drought broke the lake refilled to overflowing. More troublesome and long-lasting was the hit the aquifers took.

Plunging levels of surface water or snowpack during times of drought are often dramatic (see California’s Lake Oroville, above). Longer-lasting damage is done, however, when aquifers are depleted and not recharged. What has been happening in India is not an isolated case of industrial short-sightedness. Aquifer depletion is a problem in California, the US Great Plains, Australia, China, Africa, and all over the world. Few people are paying much attention to it yet, but it’s a ticking time bomb we all should be working NOW to defuse.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Global Research for the photo of the Indian woman by her well, to the World Resources Institute for the Water Stress map, and to PBS NewsHour for the 2015 photo of Lake Oroville. 

Odd politics

The Artdog Quote of the Week:

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a good point here, as usual. Problem is, E=mc2  doesn’t threaten certain industries’ corporate profits. The climate change “controversy” stems from the same root cause (and had been promoted by some of the exact same people) as the “controversy” over whether smoking causes lung cancer (brace yourself: it does!).

IMAGE: Many thanks to the Climate Reality Project (check out their website!) for this image, and many other resources. 

Fires gone wild

The Artdog Images of Interest

Three major signals of climate change’s onset are increased rates and ferocity of fires, deepening drought, and increasingly violent storms. Today’s image focuses on fire.

Firefighters worked for days to control wildfires around Mecklenberg County, NC in November 2016. I hope this photographer didn’t get singed, taking this behind-the-burning brush photo! Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate a photographer’s credit.

This North Carolina fire was only one of hundreds (it’s surprising, how difficult it seemed to be, to find a definitive total) that burned in the US in 2016. An interactive map of 2016 wildfires in California shows general locations by date range.

Total number of fires may be down, but total acres burned have doubled in 30 years.

A study released last October (2016) concluded that “human-caused climate change is responsible for nearly doubling the number of acres burned in western United States wildfires during the last 30 years,” according to Bill Gabbert, of the Wildfire Today website.

IMAGE: Many thanks to WSOC-TV Channel 9 in North Carolina for the dramatic fire photo, and to Wildfire Today for the chart, compiled by Bill Gabbert, showing acres burned.

To automate, or not to automate? The uncanny valley

A Glimpse of the Future

My mid-week post for the past two weeks has addressed a disruptive technology of major importance in the current global job situation: automation for greater productivity.

Robots and automated processes have already moved well beyond doing only what robotics expert Ryan Calo called “the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull.” 

Last Wednesday I examined some of the ways robots and automation are replacing some types of traditionally minimum-wage or low-wage jobs, sometimes in appropriate ways, but other times in what some (including me) might consider needless, or less reasonable, ways.

Today I’d like to move up the social ladder a bit, because it’s not only blue-collar jobs that proponents of automation or robotics are proposing to pre-empt.

According to the research I’ve done for this series, doctors, nurseslawyers, financial advisorswriters, teachers, and child-care workers are also in the cross-hairs. At this rate, nobody can afford to get too smug. If professions requiring higher-level thinking and analysis are in danger from automation, NO job is safe.

Is that actually a real threat, though? Won’t there be at some point an “uncanny valley” effect? The uncanny valley is a problem in both animation and robotics. If you make something look or act extremely realistic–but just short of indistinguishable from the real thing–people react with revulsion. It strikes them as creepy.

The Uncanny Valley can be a scary place!

Could the uncanny valley save white-collar jobs? Well, maybe. The verdict is still out. There’s evidence that once people become accustomed to the almost-real look, they find it less repulsive. In other words, don’t count on it.

The end result SHOULD lie in whether the automation actually does a more satisfactory job than a competent human could. Meanwhile, this is a great source of thought experiments for science fiction writers, futurists, technological ethicists, and many others.

I’ve gotta say though, I find it interesting I haven’t yet seen any proposals that AIs should take over research chairs in the field of robotics research.

But think about it. Once we’ve reached the singularity, is there any career they’d find more interesting?

I’d bet not.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it’s News for the “looking to the future” graphic, and to G Financial Services Marketing for the “ranks of white-collar robots” illustration. I’m grateful to PandaStrike for the illustrated Uncanny Valley graph, and to HR Zone for the robot photo.

Tribulation

The Artdog Quote of the Week:

Does anybody else miss President Barack Obama the way I do? As usual, he’s making good sense, here. Also as usual, a lot of people haven’t/aren’t/refuse to listen. Gonna be a squeaker, if it isn’t already too late, I fear.

IMAGE: Many thanks to TodayInSci for this image.