Roboticists: We've missed the mark for pandemic busting robots ... yet again

In the wake of Ebola, we had a chance to create automation tools to help. But interdisciplinary science funding has not been forthcoming.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer on

We've missed the mark when it comes to funding robotics development to meet critical demands during the COVID-19 pandemic. That's the takeaway from an editorial in the journal Science Robotics today, which was signed by leading academic researchers in the field. 

According to the authors of the editorial, robots could easily be doing some of the "dull, dirty and dangerous" jobs associated with combating the COVID-19 pandemic, but funding and development has not been directed at the capabilities that would be most helpful.

In particular, robots can perform tasks like disinfecting surfaces, taking temperatures of people in public areas or at ports of entry, providing social support for quarantined patients, collecting nasal and throat samples for testing, and enabling people to virtually attend conferences and exhibitions. In fact, some of those functionalities are coming online in certain cases, as we've reported

But the authors of the editorial are adamant that funding for multidisciplinary research has been scarce. Robotics, which exists at the intersection of fields as diverse as mechanical engineering, computer engineering, machine vision, artificial intelligence, and biomechanics has long been particularly challenging to fund outside of certain prescribed industrial use cases. With some notable exceptions, including Moxi, the socially intelligent hospital robot pictured, the market hasn't prioritized certain kinds of robotics research that could help buttress overburdened healthcare systems. We're seeing the consequences now, and unfortunately they were entirely predictable.

"The experiences with the (2015) Ebola outbreak identified a broad spectrum of use cases, but funding for multidisciplinary research, in partnership with agencies and industry, to meet these use cases remains expensive, rare and directed to other applications," the researchers noted in the editorial.

"Without a sustainable approach to research, history will repeat itself, and robots will not be ready for the next incident," they added.

The authors of the editorial include Howie Choset, a professor in CMU's Robotics Institute and one of the founding editors of Science Robotics, along with Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Science, Robin Murphy of Texas A&M University, Henrik Christensen of the University of California, San Diego, and Steven Collins, a professor at Stanford University.

Choset stressed that the idea behind the editorial wasn't solely to prescribe how robots might be used in a pandemic.

"Rather, we hope to inspire others in the community to conceive of solutions to what is a very complicated problem," he explained.

Choset also emphasized that, like robots, artificial intelligence could help in responding to epidemics and pandemics, but funding across disciplines has to drive those applications. At Choset's academic home, Carnegie Mellon, researchers are working at the intersection of a number of applicable technologies, including AI and robotics, human-robot interaction, automated monitoring of social media, edge computing and ad hoc computer networks in hopes of developing solutions to aid future public health crises.

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