Vikas Nath, Artash Nath, Arushi Nath
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This piece was written inspired by listening to an interesting and timely online discussion moderated by Andra Keay from Silicon Valley Robotics on March 24, 2020, and combining our own experiences of making things, building robots for the last five years, and more recently embedding them with artificial intelligence.
The panel discussion members were Gui Cavalcanti (Breeze Automation & Open Source COVID-19 Medical Supplies), Tra Vu (COO Ohmnilabs & Kambria), Alder Riley (ideastostuff & Helpful Engineering), Mark Martin (Director Industry/Workforce Development CCC), and Prof Ken Goldberg (CITRIS People & Robots Lab). It is a must-watch for anyone interested in the role of robots during the #COVID19 crisis. You can listen to this panel discussion at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ED3FlHYodj0&feature=youtu.be
Robots fascinate many of us and we have big expectations from them: from robots being a part of every family to robots as superheroes and superheroines that are instrumental in saving the world.
Covid-19 seems to have been the right moment for robots to shine: for robots to shoulder the burden with humans, to go where the humans cannot, to do tasks that are not safe for humans, and to take over when humans fall sick and tired. This is a crisis where robots for once and all could have proven that they are humans’ Best Friends Forever (BFF) and irreplaceable in our modern lives.
But where are the robots as humans are grappling with the #COVID19 pandemic?
As health care workers and front line workers including those working in retail, transportation, border control, and essential services are getting overburdened and fall sick, we need robots more than ever. We need robots to automate and augment many of the human tasks, for example, taking the temperature of visitors arriving at airports and seaports; carrying out sanitization of hospitals, hotels and transit systems; self-driving cars to transport people going for COVID19 tests to hospitals, and robots that could deliver goods to homes of seniors or those quarantined. More than ever we need robots as friends that could meaningfully engage with those isolated at homes and are on missing social interactions.
Robotic that could offer telemedicine support and act as assistants to virtual doctors are needed to provide health services at short notice and in remote areas. This would decrease the visits made to the hospitals as triage and initial diagnosis could be done from home. It will keep health providers and people safe and reduce people coming in contact with each other.
As people still need to live, eat and consume things, robots need to be embedded in e-commerce chains and stores, where demands are increasing but fewer workers turn up for work as their safety is likely to get compromised due to greater human-human interaction. As traditional manufacturing and supply chains are getting affected due to a shortage of workforce, having armies of robots fulfilling some of the manufacturing roles would help in sustaining the efforts needed to flatten the curve.
Robotic Companies: Customised Industrial Robots vs Standardized Robots
While there have been heroic efforts from many robotic companies to play a crucial role during the ongoing #COVID19 pandemic these efforts are small compared to those of established companies.
There are several issues that prevent robotic companies to play a greater role. These include difficulties in procuring components due to cascading supply chain failures. As China first battled COVID19, followed by the rest of the world, there have been disruptions in supply chains. Though China has now restarted production things trading and shipping levels are still far from normal.
But the good news is still coming out from different parts of the world. For instance, Silicon Valley, California based OhmniLabs has a flagship product: the Ohmni® Robot. It is a telepresence robot that transforms how people connect, from their homes, businesses, classrooms, to hospitals. The company is printing robots using 3D printers. It has built 30 more 3D printers to create more telepresence robots to meet the rising demand from the health community, namely hospitals and nursing homes. Telepresence robots can work at all times, keep everyone safe, can be sanitized and can help in connecting patients to their families to reduce isolation and stress.
Similarly, the robots supplied by Beijing-based robotics company CloudMinds can clean and disinfect, deliver medicine to patients and measure their temperature to check for symptoms of COVID19.
The demand for retail 3D printing factories is also increasing as the stuff can be created then and there. For instance, a crucial part unavailable elsewhere could be 3D printed so that entire traditional manufacturing does not have to stop. Sometimes an entire device itself can be 3D printed. A Spanish consortium that comprises Consorci de la Zona Franca de Barcelona (CZFB), Leitat, HP, the Consorci Sanitari de Terrassa and the Parc Taulí hospital in Sabadell, recently developed the first medical 3D printed ventilator named Leitat 1 to support hospitals against COVID19. 3D printing is strengthening innovation capacities closer to home at times of crisis.
It is unfortunate that few robotic companies have gone bankrupt or closed doors in the last couple of years. These include Suitable Technologies (now acquired by Blue Ocean Robotics) of telepresence robots or Rethink Robotics(taken over by the HAHN group). These companies could have played a very important role during the ongoing crises as they would have been able to deliver robots that could be trained to handle many of the needed tasks.
There is a tradeoff between huge, custom-designed and expensive industrial robots versus standardized, off the shelf robots. While the former ones are more accurate and fast, they often need to train staff and custom algorithms and software to operate them. But the standardized, off the shelf smaller robots, are more adaptable and flexible to perform a variety of tasks, and in most cases, they can be operated by anyone using touchpads. For instance, a robot that can recognize objects can easily be trained to recognize door knobs for sanitization.
As demand for food and grocery items increases, it is a wake-up call for the robotics industry on creating easily deployable robots that can pick things, pack them and dispatch them while keeping retail workers safe. Such robots could also be used in the hospitality sector and for delivery services.
Role of Makers and Micro Industries
This is probably the first time in our lived experiences where people all over the world have only one thing on their mind: defeat #COVID19 and bring life back to normal.
Lots of people have time, expertise, equipment, and a motive to do something about the COVID19 crisis. As soon as there is a shift in demand, people with 3D printers and laser cutters can quickly get to work to create designs, and test prototypes.
The maker community can play a significant role in improving the designs of health care products and testing them. For instance, in the case of medical face shields having an easy and safe way to replace the shield to fit the headband may reduce the scarcity and reduce the need for sterilization of the entire product. Similarly, prototypes of products that could be easily used to protect the eyes from getting infected by the virus could be useful.
There is always an issue of products being sterilizable, robust and of medical grade as they play a crucial role in the welfare of patients and health care workers. There is always a sweet spot on what roles most maker community can perform for instance make face shields rather than more complex products such as ventilators and N95 respirators which would require acceptance and approval of the medical community and have greater safety, critical and regulatory standards. The feedback from the medical community would be needed to ensure that wrong or unsafe products do not enter the market where they could do more harm than good.
But COVID19 presents demands for products which are needed in far larger quantities and for a longer time that cannot be met by makers community only. For instance, the logistics and scale needed to produce 1000 masks a day to producing 100,000 a day for several weeks are different. Industries eventually need to step in.
Local manufacturers and micro industries need to be involved as they will be able to cater to the local demand when traditional supply chains are slow and saturated. We have seen this in the case of local distilleries converting their manufacturing processes to produce hand sanitizers and disinfectants and supplying them to local hospitals and health workers. For example, Dillon’s Small Batch Distillery in Ontario Canada has been manufacturing sanitizers round the clock and donating them to hospitals and first responders as these products are scarce in the open market.
Repair and Open Source Movements
We are seeing a greater shift towards Product Repair and Open Source Medical Supplies Movement to make designs of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), ventilators and respirators available to all. This is being done so that maker communities can quickly come up with prototypes and have more industries to move their manufacturing much needed medical products to augment their dwindling supplies. And we are already seeing many big manufacturers including Dyson, Tesla, and General Electric responding to these calls and refitting some of their factories to produce ventilators.
We now had Dublin-based Medtronic PLC publish the design specifications (with software code to follow) for its ventilators. It will allow manufacturers worldwide to use the specifications to make their own. The company is now working with Tesla to produce ventilators and ship them for free.
We would need to focus on training and capacity building too, be it online or through closed groups so that a skilled workforce is always available for essential services as more people fall sick and need to isolate themselves.
There is a greater need for innovations, apps, and sensors for people who want to get tested on COVID19. For instance, we now have cameras and screens in all our devices: phones, laptops, and computers. Could these be converted to sensors that can monitor our pulse, temperature and breathing patterns on a daily basis? This will also be more reliable than self-reporting and the information gathered will be more accurate and verifiable.
Role of Governments
Governments have an important role to play in providing coordination between different industries, hastening the approval time (without compromising on safety aspects) and remove the bureaucratic bottlenecks to help production match the demand. It will ensure that the collective willingness and expertise of many people who are at homes to play a role and do something about the pandemic can be made better use off and support the efforts to prevent the spread. For instance, the US Food and Drug Administration is reducing the time it takes to certify things which could bring much-needed products to the market much faster.
Governments could make it easier to procure parts for robots or reduce duties associated with it. At the time of crisis, governments can even encourage companies to open their patents or share their expertise with other industries.
We are seeing a whole new level of more intimate and engaged Human-Robot interaction. It is no longer unusual to have all meetings, social interactions, communication, conferences and education happening virtually and through devices. We no longer hear the physical sounds of humans. Instead, we are hearing the digitized version of their voices, sometimes live and sometimes recorded streamed through our devices. It feels to be the new normal and can provide a more intimate experience where we end up believing that the speaker is exclusively talking to us through our device even though hundreds of other people may be listening to it on their own devices. Many seniors and those hard of hearing are now able to better hear others as the digital voice is more clear and devoid of background noise.
Our robots: MARS Bot and ARTEMIS Bot
We have been making robots over the years, testing them, prototyping them for different situations.
Make an Astronaut Smile (MARS) Bot
MARS bot is a robot aimed at making humans happy. This robot can be used during the COVID19 outbreak to cheer up people who are self-isolated at home without family or friends.
MARS bot uses Open Computer Vision (OpenCV) to carry out facial emotions detection and Arduino for making movements. When it detects a sad face it moves its arm to give people a high five.
Artificially intelligent Real-time Training by Environment, Mapping, Immersion, and Sounds (ARTEMIS) Bot
We have come across lots of intelligent robots. But most of them are good for specific tasks. For instance, a robot that plays games or a robot that cleans the house or a robot that sorts garbage or a robot that does surgery. These are very useful robots indeed and their algorithms have been trained and perfected to do that specific task. ARTEMIS Robot has been created to learn just like humans do and to slowly become more intelligent every day. It has stereo vision and hearing and speech capabilities. It is able to use an infrared camera to take the temperature of humans and is able to measure the frequency of coughs.
(The full video presentation with details of how each segment in the demo happened is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T713TTW60v0 )
ARTEMIS is how we envision a human-like robot should be like. A robot that:
- Learns slowly
- Learns through multiple senses (sight, sounds, speech)
- Learns through its environment
- Learns by mapping objects, faces, conversations, actions around it
- Learns by being immersed in conversations with humans
- Learns by asking questions
- Learns through encouragement and reinforcement of learning
- Learns through applying logic
- Learns through using probability/ making estimation
- Learns constantly
- Has multiple capabilities
- Can be whatever it wants to be
- Is unique
- Has moral and ethical values