Two separate reports about the advancement of robots into hospital settings give pause about the changing roles of human versus machine power — and kindles renewed concerns about automation replacing livelihoods.
Aaron Saenz over at Singularity Hub reports how a healthcare institution recently purchased 19 robots to serve as smart carts, delivering and picking up supplies around the facility. The hospital is using TUG robots from Aethon, which the vendor says can transport “scheduled” and “on-demand” deliveries of all bulk material, medications, and meals between all ancillary, support, and patient care units. “TUG can be summoned with the press of a computer key, and is the only unescorted vehicle system that can reliably negotiate through hallways, elevators, automatic doors, and narrow aisle-ways with human traffic,” Aethon says.
Shown in action in the video below is “Fenway the TUG robot” at the West Roxbury VA Hospital in Massachusetts.
With healthcare costs soaring through the roof, it seems logical that healthcare institutions adopt as much automation as possible. However, as it so often does, the automation comes at a cost of jobs. At the same time the healthcare facility reported above, El Camino Hospital in Silicon Valley, put its 19 robots to work, it announced in was laying off 140 workers.
UPDATE 10/11/2010: I received a clarification from Don Frances, media relations manager at El Camino Hospital, on this point. Don states that the “TUG robots were not brought online ‘at a cost of jobs.’ They were not even brought online at the same time — they came with the new facility, last November, while the hospital’s shortfall was not unveiled until the start of the new calendar year.t’s a compelling story - robots stealing humans’ jobs - and one that seems to want to be told whether or not it’s true. In the case of El Camino Hospital, it’s not.”
But the rise of automation is generating a great deal of concern over the potential loss of jobs at a time when more jobs are needed — and not just for service jobs, but higher-level jobs as well. As one observer puts it: the rise of robots in workplace settings “demonstrates that the economic tradeoff between robots and even relatively low wage/low skill jobs is beginning to tip in favor of the machines.”
So, more and more hospital grunt work — deliveries, perhaps handling biohazards — will be handled by robots, right? Robots aren’t threatening the jobs of highly skilled medical professionals, at least not yet.
But there is a report that doctors may be extending their presence through robots as well. In an example cited in The New York Times, a doctors a couple of hundred miles away can attend to patients via a remote-controlled telepresence robot. Such robots have cameras and audio gear, are mobile, and display operators; faces via monitors.
While automation often brings pain, Saenz is optimistic about the progression of robots into workplace settings. As he puts it:
“Cheaper labor, cheaper goods, more humans being able to focus on interesting problems instead of mundane tasks – I think these are all likely outcomes. But whether or not automation makes sound sense for our economy, there’s little doubt that companies will continue to use them to save costs. For many jobs, humans are simply going to be too expensive.”