• Robots
  • How will Google's robots help healthcare?

    What’s the difference between a Google executive and the Star Trek crew? “Star Trek characters never go shopping” said Douglas Coupland, the Canadian novelist. Google’s been on a massive shopping spree and buying robots by the tonne.

    The Guardian, a UK broadsheet, says Google’s bought Boston Dynamics, Nest Labs, DeepMind, Bot & Dolly, Meka Robotics, Holomni, Redwood Robotics, Schaft and DNNresearch. It must have a massive shopping basket and a credit card limit to match. What can healthcare expect to gain from it?

    Robotics already play a major role in clinical work, such as surgery and imaging. The Da Vinci Surgical Robot is a well-established example.  But healthcare depends on a wide range of activities. It’s not beyond sci-fi to imagine robots with hospital cleaning roles, providing some catering services, some portering services and helping patients in their homes. They could help with some hospital engineering tasks. They already manage and dispense drugs in pharmacies, so smaller versions could do it on hospital wards. Health Robotics is a large supplier of intra-venous medication preparation, compounding, and dispensing.

    Paro is more like a cuddly harp seal with a diurnal rhythm, but it’s an advanced interactive therapeutic robot developed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST).  He, she or it, provides patients with proven animal therapy benefits in hospitals and extended care facilities. It could do this in patients’ homes too. It’s claimed that Paro has:

    Helped to reduce patients’ and carers’ stress Stimulated interaction between patients and carers Improved patients relaxation and motivation Improved the patients’ socialiasation with each other and with their carers A Guinness World Records’ certificate saying it’s World’s Most Therapeutic Robot.

    Paro is the eighth generation of a design used in Japan and throughout Europe since 2003, so not exactly sci-fi.

    It’s not difficult to envisage the benefits of an expanded role for robots in healthcare. There are costs too. Robots need regulation, especially for health and safety. They can contain information about patients, so need to comply with eHealth regulations for topics such as privacy, confidentiality, informatics, cyber-security, standards and information sharing. These are not insurmountable tasks.

    With the immense demand for healthcare in Africa and the mismatched supply of health workers, robots may have an important contribution. Affordability is always a constraint, so any take-up will be gradual. One thing that distinguishes robots from the Star Trek crew is that robots can go shopping, which could be handy for home care.

  • Robots can be health workers

    Why is Google buying robotics firms? Apart from the obvious answer, to make money, there is a considerable market potential in healthcare that it can contribute too. Robots as surgical devices is well known, and can continue to expand as a market that benefits patients and new clinical techniques, but there are many other uses too.

    Best Thinking Computers & Technology is an online information service dealing with, unsurprisingly, computers and technology. It’s Artificial Intelligence site sets out a range of uses of robots in healthcare.

    If Google can see the opportunities, it is important that African countries consider a section in their eHealth and technology strategies that supports plans for an increasing role for robots as part of healthcare and related services such as disaster recovery. The potential needs rigorous assessment in order to realize the full, affordable potential.