Science Channel - InSCIder

13 Jun

Would You Want a Robot to Give You a Sponge Bath?

Robot-sponge-bath-250x150If you think healthcare is too impersonal and bureaucratic already, I'm guessing that you may not be too enthusiastic about a future in which intelligent machines take over much of the patient care, from changing the linens on your hospital bed to performing surgical procedures. Forget about Obamacare--we're talking Robocare, and it's probably inevitable, due to an aging population that in the future will have more patients and fewer workers.

 "We are just not going to have enough human hands to do all the work,"  as Donald Jones, a managing director at robotics company Draper Triangle Ventures explained to the Wall Street Journal last year. Already, according to the WSJ, there are about 1,000 robots in use in the nation's hospitals, and Jones predicts that in five years, there will be five to 10 times as many.

Already, at El Camino hospital in California's Silicon Valley, a fleet of 19 robots rolls up and down the hallways, doing everything from delivering lab samples and medications to hauling medical refuse. Using machines to do those jobs instead of human workers reportedly saves the hospital more than $650,000 a year. At Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Sacramento, RP-VITA, a five-foot-six-inch mobile robot equipped with a video camera, a display monitor and a stethoscope, allows doctors using computers, tablets or smartphones to examine and communicate with patients, even if they're not in the same building. Such machines are seen as a way to cope with a shortage of medical specialists. "This has proven to tremendously valuable," Dr. Alan Shantzel, a neurologist for Mercy, told the Sacramento Bee newspaper. He does note one limitation: "We can't touch the patients."

But that's likely to change, thanks European scientists' development of artificial skin and sensor technologies that will provide future robots with greater tactile feedback. Robots' exteriors may soon be equipped with tiny networks of nerve-like electronic sensors that will sense temperature and texture.

Someday soon, that's going to make it possible for robots to perform even complex medical procedures than the prostate cancer operations and throat-voice box tumor surgery that robots already are performing. You probably won't even notice that you're being operated upon by a robot, since you'll also be put to sleep by an anesthetic-administering automaton such as McGill University's McSleepy robot.

You'll definitely notice, though, when a future caregiving robot provides you with bedside care, such as feeding, transferring you from a bed to a wheelchair, or assisting you in walking. And then there's bathing. In 2010, Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have developed Cody, a robotic nurse that is equipped with a laser range finger and a camera to guide the movements of a mechanical arm equipped with a washcloth. According to a university press release: "Cody lessens the burden of the nurses workload and saves the patient from the embarrassment of another human having to bathe them." Here's how it works.  

As the website explains, the robot has a number of built-in safety features--it's programmed to keep its skin-pressure contact low, and its arm joits are flexible enough to cushion the contact. In addition, there's an override button that instantly halts the robot's movements, in case something goes wrong.

Even so, being touched intimately by a non-human hand is going to seem, well, a little creepy. After all, for most of us, our point of reference is science-fiction depictions of robots, and for every helpful, kindly C3P0 from Star Wars, there's a malevolent machine such as the Terminator. (Here's a piece that I wrote for our sister site HowStuffWorks on evil sci-fi robots bent upon destroying humanity.

So what do you think? Would you want a robot to give you a sponge bath, or to perform surgery upon you? Express your opinion below.

about the blog

Welcome to the inSCIder, where you can connect with the people who bring Science Channel to life. Find out what's in the works here at SCIENCE, share your feedback with the team and see what's getting our attention online and in the news.





stay connected

our sites