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Robots and human health

Burned into my memory is a bit from the first Star Wars movie bizarrely entitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The bit was just a toss-off during a battle scene. While humans traded blaster shots, a mobile robot the size of an remote-control model car blundered in between two fighting groups. The poor little thing braked to a halt, executed a fast Y turn, and bolted out of the corridor as fast as its little wheels could go. Obviously, the robot perceived it was in a place it didn’t want to be, decided to abandon whatever mission it had been on, and run away.

What made this important was the implied prediction that in the future humans would be surrounded by little autonomous robots scurrying around on minor missions of their own while humans did other–more “important”– things. That was back in 1977. Today we are moving rapidly into that “future.”

Adept Technology has delivered a new generation of RoboCourier mobile robots to Swisslog Healthcare Solutions (HCS) for use in hospitals, clinical laboratories and pharmacies to transport specimens, medications and supplies.

Considerably larger than the little guy skating around in the Star Wars scene, RoboCourier presumably still doesn’t have the intelligence to know what to do should it blunder into a pitched gun battle, but most hospital patients wouldn’t know what to do, either. It does, however, have the smarts to avoid obstacles while navigating a chaotic environment, and even use an elevator to get its payload where it’s supposed to go. Beta testers and early adopters report that each RoboCourier frees up 1.5 humans to concentrate on human tasks — like dealing with patients.

In another vision of a science-fiction future, fans of the interminably running British sci-fi series Dr. Who will be familiar with Daleks, which are mutant-alien creatures dependent on armored (and armed) mechanical shells for all activities, from transport to verbal communication. Daleks were supposedly the brainchild of megamaniacal paraplegic scientist Davros, himself confined to a motorized life-support wheelchair. The Daleks, themselves, mimicked Davros’ cyborgic existence as a cross between a maniacal creature and a bumper car.

The Daleks’ dark nature was entirely due to the whacked-out creatures inhabiting the shells, however. The technology is, itself, quite benign. Gecko Systems International recently announced an agreement with an Israeli venture capitalist to develop a motorized wheelchair system guided by the company’s navigational software. An outgrowth of Gecko’s CareBot robotic nursemaid for house-bound humans, the software has all the multisensor-enabled perceptual systems needed to navigate autonomously through a chaotic environment.

Fitting a motorized wheelchair with Gecko’s navigational software will provide presumably sane, but seriously wheelchair-bound, humans — epitomized by famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking — a fuller, richer life.

C.G. Masi has been blogging about technology and society since 2006. In a career spanning more than a quarter century, he has written more than 400 articles for scholarly and technical journals, and six novels dealing with automation’s place in technically advanced society. For more information, visit www.cgmasi.com.  

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