Designing Human-Robot Relationships


You wake up in a rural hospital bed. You hear monitors sounding alarms, pumps clicking, and voices over an intercom. Confused, you look around and see a nurse, a young technician, and a third person, a doctor — or so she appears to be. But you see only her face on a screen, talking and moving toward you. She is interacting with you through a robot. The robot-doctor tells you not to worry; you were just involved in an accident requiring surgery and you are in recovery. Don’t be startled by her robot body, she adds. She can’t be there in person right now. As you begin to make sense of the situation, you understand that the robot is a telepresence interface between you and your doctor and that she is a surgeon who lives and works in another city.

As the robo-doc begins directing the other people in the room, you realize she’s in control of your care. Although you begin to answer her questions, you learn that the distant doctor also performed your surgery in the surgical theater down the hall using another robot. A monitor in your room sounds an alarm. The remote doctor tells you what it is and she silences it somehow. Noticing your look of surprise, your surgeon explains that she’s connected to all the hospital’s systems and devices that are monitoring you right now. Soon, you find yourself forgetting that you’re talking to a video doctor, and the robot begins to seem more like a person than a machine. That is until she says that she didn’t like the way that one of your internal organs looked during the surgery. So, while you were under anesthesia, she released a few hundred nanorobots into your vascular system to scout around your body and report back on what they find.

If this sounds like a science-fiction scenario that you’ll never experience, think again. Medical telepresence robots such as the RPVita from InTouch Health and iRobot are already in use across the country. Thousands of minimally invasive surgical robots such as Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci system are also being used around the globe. And although nanorobots seemed like the stuff of fantasy just 10 years ago, scientists and technologists are making huge strides in developing and testing these systems in leading universities around the world. We are probably only a few years away from the first nanorobot trials in medical procedures on humans.

Continuing a long tradition of pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge with technology, doctors use state-of-the-art robots because these tools give them enhanced capabilities, improve healthcare outcomes, and contribute to the hospital’s bottom line. Today, robo-tools, controlled by care teams, give patients access to the best physician for the situation and give that doctor enhanced surgical precision. Soon, these tools will report on and help your body’s internal operating systems. As technologies advance and more healthcare professionals experience the benefits, medical robots will become increasingly common. And that’s good — as long as the creators truly understand what the users of those robots expect from them.

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