Emerging Technologies

3 ways robots will change healthcare

Holly Hickman
Writer, GE Look Ahead
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Most people associate advanced robotics with manufacturing. Increasingly, however, the healthcare market is also benefitting from the technology for three important reasons.

The first is automation. Robots’ ability to perform repetitive tasks quickly, 24/7 and at relatively low cost makes them particularly useful in early-stage drug design when the drug needs to be tested against a large number of different samples. Eve, a robot from the University of Cambridge in England, can test more than 10,000 compounds a day, for example. Three months ago, this robot—which is also equipped with artificial intelligence—discovered that a compound with anti-cancer properties may also be useful in fighting malaria. Eve is not the first robot to discover new scientific knowledge—that distinction goes to Adam, who, in 2009, ran and interpreted experiments on the genomics of baker’s yeast.

Second, robots can assist with tasks caregivers can’t do (such as moving patients) or don’t want to do. “Healthcare robotics technology is best for any tasks that ease the burden of providing, managing or receiving care,” says Laurel D. Riek, head of the Robotics, Health and Communication Lab at the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

With 22% of the global population expected to be over age 65 by 2050, such assistance could come in handy. Elder care robots have already been introduced in Japan and Germany And Israeli researchers at Ben-Gurion University are now working on tailoring algorithms to help robots adjust to the gait, pace and abilities of their users. Assistant robots will also be able to help in a hospitals, where they can support staff and help sanitise environments. Xenex, for example, develops “germ-zapping” robots that can disinfect entire hospital rooms and eradicate harmful pathogens such as Clostridium difficile or MRSA in about five minutes, according to the company.

Last, but not least, robotics can help improve a surgeon’s performance. Surgical theatres have employed them for years—the first robot-assisted operation dates back to 1985—and some systems, like Intuitive’s Da Vinci surgical system, are already quite advanced. The advent of big data and image recognition software is a particularly promising field in this regard, one that Google aims to leverage to deliver the next generation of surgical robots.

Acceptance will be key to market penetration. This, however remains a challenge. In a recent survey of the UK population by The Institution of Engineering and Technology, for example, only one-third of respondents said they might consider the use of robots to care for an elderly or disabled person.

Ms Riek believes psychological resistance to robots may wane as people realise the benefits. As she pointed out, “when mobile phones first became available, few people used them. Once people saw their utility and convenience, however, they became ubiquitous and, to many, indispensable”.

This article is published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Holly Hickman writes for GE Look Ahead.

Image: A demonstrator sits in an electronic wheelchair as she talks with a doctor, seen on the monitor of Panasonic’s HOSPI-Rimo, at its presentation in Tokyo. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon 

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