As COVID-19 sweeps the globe like a tempest and the world eagerly seeks a protagonist to shape a happy ending, I wonder, can robots save us? To answer this question, let's look at the front lines to find out if AI and robots are truly helping us in this time of peril or whether humans, once again, must save the day.
Starting with the robots.
Robots are smart, capable of handling many jobs, impervious to viruses (at least the human kind) and, if you believe The Guardian, 50% of Americans believe robots will take over their lives. With all that compelling PR on their sides, robots must be able to snuff out this pandemic, right?
Turns out the answer is yes—robots are fighting coronavirus and making a difference.
3 Robot Wins in the fight against COVID-19
1. Fever Detecting Robots. Silicon Valley's Kogniz Health created cameras armed with AI-based multisensory technology to deploy in public areas, outside facilities or even onboard rolling robots. Their job is to scan crowds and identify anyone with a temperature to locate and isolate risk. “Companies want to keep their employees healthy and safe,” said Daniel Putterman, co-founder and co-CEO. “During a pandemic such as this one it is critical that organisations be able to quickly identify people who might be sick, and one way to do that is to detect fever." Similarly, just as you read this article, robots in China are proving effective at sanitizing hands (and neighborhoods) and even monitoring sick patients. Pretty impressive.
2. Robot Healthcare Assistants. With healthcare systems under siege from coronavirus, response measures and information distribution is severely challenged. To combat this, Canada-based Stallion.AI, specialists in natural language processing, built a virtual healthcare agent capable of answering calls from humans related to COVID-19. Because they can handle a high volume of calls simultaneously, virtual assistants can significantly increase response rates and get more callers the information they need.
During calls, the AI-driven chatbot can also check and monitor symptoms, offer reliable recommendations and ultimately advise individuals whether they need hospital screening or self-isolation. Similarly, Massachusetts-based Orbita, a leader in conversational AI, created OrbitaASSIST, a voice-powered, AI-driven virtual health assistant to improve patient communication at the bedside. So far the results are impressive with as much as a 70% reduction in median response time to patient calls.
3. Disease Surveillance Robots. As the world has learned, surveillance of an infectious disease like COVID-19 is crucial. BlueDot, a health monitoring platform based in Canada, reportedly used an AI algorithm to detect the Coronavirus outbreak on Dec. 31, a week before the Center for Disease Control. Per Wired, rather than relying on national health officials for outbreak information, "BlueDot's AI algorithm analyzes global news reports, animal and plant disease networks, airline ticketing data and official announcements to predict and detect potential epidemics." During the coronavirus outbreak, the algorithm reportedly used airline ticketing information to accurately predict the spread of the virus from Wuhan, China, to Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo. With time equating to lives lost, this was a clear win for robot kind.
Now for the human kind...
3 Human Wins in the fight against COVID-19
1. Who is Amazon relying on? Turning to the world's largest online retailer as a litmus test reveals a lot about the reliance on robots vs. humans. In one warehouse near the Denver airport, Amazon recently deployed squat little robots to do the heavy lifting and ferry packages between human workers. However, this deployment pales in comparison to Amazon's recent hire of 100,000 additional humans in direct response to the pandemic. The bots ferry, but for the fine manipulation of objects, Amazon turns overwhelmingly to human kind.
According to Amazon, "We are hiring 100,000 full and part-time employees, and looking for talent in every community where we operate." When COVID-19 closed teacher Darby Griffin's preschool, Amazon had a job for her. "It's important to me to be helping people during this time," said Griffin. The new hires fill a range of roles in the operations that receive, fulfill, ship, and deliver customer orders. “Their need for human labor may fall through time, but for now the growth in demand for their products outstrips any gains from automation,” says Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and visiting professor at the University of Utah. Score one for the blue jean wearers. Somewhat telling when a world leader in robotic automation doubles down on humans in a crisis.
2. Human's prove "Essential." Shelter in place orders have shut down many factories and businesses. Yet, essential businesses and companies that can operate with remote workers remain open and those businesses are essentially run by humans. Essential humans. It may surprise some, but up to 80% of the US workforce...is still working during the pandemic. Much of this can be attributed to companies who transitioned workers from shared offices to home offices in a matter of days—try pulling that off with a legion of robots. In addition, the front lines include grocery stores workers, product and commodity distribution personnel and service workers. Here, humans rule the roost and robot technology has not made an impact.
The crisis incited a very human response from youth who have self-organized and are very likely delivering supplies to at-risk people in your neighborhood right now. Similarly, restaurants and grocery stores remain in operation, playing an important role in maintaining our infrastructure, thanks to rapid shifts. Again, it's the humans who pivot effectively and in the case of food distribution, that means getting food to customers while limiting their exposure and leveraging a human-first approach that positions workers up front to answer questions, orchestrate the new shopping paradigm and effectively lower anxiety to get the job done. Bot trainable? Not before the shelves are empty.
3. It's Humans on our most critical front--Health Care. “We know that robots are great at certain things right now, like repetitive work,” says Julie Carpenter, a roboticist and research fellow at the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “What's not so great is anything that has to do with a human-centered context, a cultural context.” We are seeing this play out in hospitals and health-care facilities across the country. A hospital isn’t like a factory floor; empathy and human connections matter. Patients—especially those stricken with the novel coronavirus—are severely ill and scared as hell. “Whether it's physical or emotional, people need to feel like their pain is being heard, that their implicit suffering is made explicit and have that reflected back to them,” Carpenter says.
Despite the success of artificial empathy in AI or coding empathy into machines, try teaching a machine to empathize with a human on the brink of death. It's this "empathy gap" that makes many roboticists shudder at the thought of automating sensitive jobs, like doctors, police and education. As this goes to print, it's doctors, nurses and other health care workers who are making the biggest difference where it really counts. Health care workers aren't immune to viruses and don't have the intellectual intelligence of AI or robots, but they posses an emotional intelligence and capacity for nuanced compassion that can take years to master, let alone program.
Robots or Humans?
In the face of the most deadly pandemic the world has ever seen, we are effectively employing AI and robots as virtual assistants, disinfectors, fever takers and more—and these efforts are making an impact, but the real solutions to this slowly revealing pandemic are coming from humans. It's people who are saving us: scientists, doctors, nurses and other health workers who may never be replaced by machines. Not to mention the grocery, delivery and massive work-from-home workforce supporting our infrastructure and distribution system. They, like the health care workers, are the humans manning our key front line positions, while the robots toil under human oversight far behind the lines. Flaws and all, we are still our only saviors—and that includes every one of you beautiful humans.
Feel empowered. We've got this.