Will Robots Take Over in Health Care?

A robot Jimmy Fallon.  Photo by Peter Yang

Tech solutions for home healthcare naturally include healthcare robots, some of which can enhance our physical abilities or make up for disabilities, while others assist healthcare workers or in some cases replace their jobs entirely. But what does the future hold for such devices? Will robots take over? And if a robot replaces your job, what will you do next? I addressed these questions previously from two different perspectives in Automation, Robots and The Pink Collar Future. Today I extend the series based on the latest issue of WIRED, which explores the future of tech innovation, robots and automation. It’s a long and well done article that I can’t reproduce here, so I’ll just include some highlights and the reader comment I added.

In an opening essay, comedian Jimmy Fallon asks, “Why hire a human when a machine can do it better and faster?” Better Than Human: Why Robots Will — And Must — Take Our Jobs

Consider the effect that automation has already had. Two hundred years ago, 70% of American workers lived on farms. Automation in the Industrial Age has since eliminated all but 1% of farm workers, replacing them (and their work animals) with machines. But the displaced workers did not sit idle. They moved to cities to work in factories and industry, filling millions of  entirely new jobs. But change in the Information Age is happening more quickly, and many fear that technology is replacing jobs faster than creating new ones. That anyway is the perspective I added in my comment.

It’s just a matter of time before 70% of today’s workers are replaced by a second wave of automation based on networks of robots with artificial intelligence, cheap sensors, and wireless connections. This deep level of automation will touch all jobs, from manual labor to knowledge work. It’s already started.

Nurse

Don’t be surprised if the next time you visit a doctor you hear a small suitcase-sized robot approach and say “Excuse me” as it carries a tray full of urine samples. Manufactured by Aethon, TUG is currently employed at 150 US hospitals and is one possible solution to the worldwide nursing shortage. TUG relieves nurses of time-consuming tasks such as picking up and delivering medications and supplies, navigating hospital hallways on its own, thanks to a stored memory of a building’s layout and sensors that help it avoid obstacles such as people. Other healthcare robots are used for tasks that are difficult for nurses, such as lifting and transferring obese patients.

Even those areas of medicine not defined by paperwork or drudgery are being automated with robots, even surgery. Pharmacies will likely feature pill-dispensing robots so the pharmacists can focus on patient consulting. Rote tasks of any information-intensive job can be automated. It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, radiologist, lawyer, architect, or even programmer: The robot takeover will be epic, and it has already begun.

Baxter

The article describes Baxter, a new type of workbot from Rethink Robotics. Designed the former MIT professor who invented the Roomba vacuum cleaner, Baxter is designed to work alongside humans. It’s got a flat screen display like many industrial bots, as well as big strong arms and hands that perform repetitive manual tasks. But it’s different in three significant ways.

First, Baxter is aware. It can look around sense what’s nearby, and it indicates where it is looking by shifting the cartoon eyes on its head. Previous industrial robots couldn’t do this and so had to be physically segregated from humans so as not to harm them inadvertently.  Using force-feedback technology to feel if it is colliding with a person or another object, Baxter is courteous. You can even plug it into a wall socket in your garage and easily work right next to it.

Second, Baxter can learn and doesn’t need the support of engineers and professional programmers. Anyone can train Baxter by simply grabbing its arms and guiding them through the correct motions and sequence. It is not as fast, strong, or precise as other industrial robots, but it is smarter.

And Finally, Baxter is cheap, priced at just $22,000, compared with over $100,000 for an industrial robot and about four times that to program and maintain it. If you think of industrial robots as like an expensive mainframe computer, think of Baxter as the first PC robot, where users can interact with it directly, immediately, and without the help of experts to mediate. It’s cheap enough that small-time manufacturers can afford one to run their 3-D printing machine. (See 7 Cool Uses of 3D Printing in Medicine.)

My Comment

ALTERNATIVE FUTURES – Futurists study alternative scenarios and weigh the likelihood and desirability of each so their clients can decide which future they prefer and make decisions supporting that version. They consider different drivers and inhibitors, including things like what’s technically possible, what’s needed by society & markets, demographics, politics, etc.

POSSIBILITIES – Tech innovation is progressing exponentially, as each new generation enables even more rapid development of future generations. Moore’s Law applied that concept to semiconductors, and as a result, we saw computer systems evolve from multimillion-dollar mainframes that required well-trained specialists to build or program them. These early systems were shared by thousands of users due to their high cost, and only wealthy companies could afford them. Then as prices fell came minicomputers and PCs, which democratized computing, giving individuals the ability to develop new uses, and new tools – tools that enabled even quicker development of newer and more capable tools. As an example, most Americans already have a personal webpage (or several using Facebook, Linkedin or other social media), and they did this without becoming a programmer or knowing how to code in HTML. Today, we don’t even think about the tech inside – the early mainframe computing capacity that’s embedded in everyday devices such as light bulbs and tooth brushes.

So what are the future possibilities since skeptics think semiconductor innovation is limited? Well, try quantum, organic, or highly-parallel computing. Today’s computers work on one instruction at a time, and even though machine cycles are ultra-fast compared with neurons, the human brain can fire off many neurons at once. When machines can do this and communicate with each other, look out. The possibilities are limitless.

NEEDS – Social & Market needs, and the ability of users to understand & absorb new technologies, can be a limiting factor. The fact that a new technology is possible does not mean it is needed or will ever become well accepted.

DEMOGRAPHICS – Needs change with demographics, and global population is exploding, even as technology lessened the need for labor to work farms and support families. When I was born, there were only about 1.5 billion people on the planet, but now there are over 7 billion, and they’re living longer. So with longer longevity, what’s to come of us as we age, and as fewer young workers remain to support us? But longevity is not equal and varies greatly by socio-economic status. Already, public health officials have noticed differences in average longevity of over 20 years between low-income and affluent neighborhoods on opposite sides of the same time. So, is this by design, a form of slow genocide? Is it because society doesn’t need or want unskilled workers?

POLITICS – This can be the greatest influence over alternative futures, as either a driver or inhibitor. People often say they don’t want governments picking winners & losers, but how does that view change if THEY are the winners. The real issue is who society will allow to influence public policy as capital investment in tech innovation replaces the need for labor. Will profits from those investments continue to flow upwards to the investor/ruling class, or will it be shared? Will the widening income, wealth and opportunity gaps widen at the same pace as tech innovation? Society can influence policy in different directions, but money can influence voters and politicians.

For other articles on robots in healthcare, click HERE.

3 Responses to “Will Robots Take Over in Health Care?”

  • I commented on Robots Don’t Destroy Jobs; Rapacious Corporate Executives Do

    As a 40+ year technologist with IBM (30 yrs), Siemens (2), Dell (2), and my own consulting firm, I’ve watched exponential growth in tech innovation enable companies to automate work, often at faster rates than new jobs are created. (see http://www.mhealthtalk.com/2012/08/automation-robots-and-the-pink-collar-future/). So I side more with Paul Krugman on that front.

    The problem for most workers is that companies are in business to create profit for investors, NOT to create jobs; and profits from tech innovation naturally flows to the investor class, NOT the working class. To understand why, watch the Canadian documentary, The Corporation.

    Two key factors fueling the widening income gap are, in my view, (1) a horribly regressive tax code that favors the investor class with low rates on capital gains, and (2) interlocking directorates, where executives sit on each other’s board of directors and support each other’s compensation plans. But worse is that, without diversity, boards tend to share common thinking among many companies, and when an idea in one company, such as offshore outsourcing, shows a profit benefit, the same idea is replicated across other companies, with executive management reacting like a heard of cattle, following whomever is leading at the moment.

    Here’s my proposal: outlaw interlocking directorates, place limits on executive pay that ties it to worker compensation, and pass a much more progressive tax code that includes treating investment income as regular income. And while we’re at it, institute a small transaction tax to discourage wild speculation that treats Wall Street and housing as financial casinos.

  • VIDEO: A robot playing catch and making coffee. (When will we have the first robot baseball league?)

    Meet Pepper, the emotional robot is a related article on CNN.

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