2020 is the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, caused by a coronavirus. First off, I’d like to point out the single best writer on the topic, Erin Bromage, if you actually want to understand what the virus is and how it spreads:
- April 19, 2020 – the likely history of how the virus spread.
- May 10, 2020 – the real risk levels of various activities.
Wellllll….robots don’t get covid (though someone is probably readying a training dummy with symptoms) so how does the pandemic affect Robots That Jump?
The answer is simple: tech-utopians decry our non-acceptance of robots everyhere, and hope maybe this will force them to see the future.
All over the world, the response of those who boost humanoid robotics as “the future” to the pandemic has been the gnarly hope…a hope that people will start using humanoid robots due to the pandemic.
For those who can’t take the time, a summary:
- You get the virus mostly from people’s breath, talking, coughing, sneezing. Touching packages in the store is much less dangerous than talking to the cashier.
- Your chance of getting infected is much worse in an enclosed space (like a church choir or office). The risk in an open park or beach is very low, in a subway or bus, very high.
- Healthcare professionals, even young ones, are at vastly greater risk because during an 8-hour shift, they are exposed to billions of times the virus you might get from a casual contact during shopping. There is evidence that infections are more severe if you get lots of the virus at once, again means we should be prioritizing healthcare professionals and 1st responders.
- You wear a mask mostly to protect others from you, since the vast majority of infected people don’t develop symptoms.
IMPORTANT! I am not “anti-lockdown” or some shill for tinfoil hats who pretend this is no pandemic. I did RNA virus research myself in the 1980s. I posted articles at the very top of this message so you can look at the ways you can protect yourself, based on science.
So, the following critique of “robots in Covid” is NOT an attack on the general response to the pandemic. It is about how those with robot-religion, desperate to have robots everywhere, trying to hitch their machines to Covid, and hoping the pandemic forces us to accept their “inevitable” future.
This “hope” has been the response of two industries: Robotics, and Virtual Reality. Both are “high tech” big ideas that has been pushed for over 100 years as “the future” but yet haven’t gotten widespread adoption like cars, radios, or smartphones. Interestingly, VR headsets aren’t selling, despite the fact that everyone is at home. Why? they are the future.
Puzzled, robo and VR evangelists see Covid-19 as a way to force people to accept that humanoid robots are “almost here”, and will form a big part of their future.
And, at first glance, it makes sense – a robot can’t get infected, right? But basically this is PR, if not religious preaching.
Case in point: India, where the system is not overloaded, despite its weak infrastructure relative to the USA. Chalk that up to the young age of the population, and low incidence of “rich country” co-morbidities like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. However, there are lots of sick people in hospitals. Can robots help?
The headline from tech magazine Protocol, “Rise of the Robots: COVID-19 is Causing a Hesitant India to Welcome Automation” is typical of the robo-mumbo-jumbo announcing there is finally a compelling reason to put humanoid robots everywhere.
The article covers some predictable, but useful things – e.g. not having a human present during an interview might reduce infection, robots can clean floors, etc.
However, the real agenda is clearly that (1) humanoid robots must be the future, and (2) the pandemic is making people realize they must be their future.
A great quote:
“…Arun Sundararajan, an NYU Stern School of Business professor researching how digital technologies transform society told Protocol that he believes a new tech paradigm will emerge after the pandemic recedes.
‘Crisis can be sort of a catalyst or can speed up changes that are on the way — it almost can serve as an accelerant,’ he said.“
I don’t think the professor actually meant “almost” – it is “on the way!”.
In other words, the pandemic is just forcing something that must happen in the future faster – a specific kind of technology (humanoid robots) that is inevitable as death and taxes, and Covid is a sign that we must accept this. The hidden emotion among techies: we probably should be glad that the pandemic is making us wake up and see our predestined future.
In practice, we don’t have useful robots to do the main things we need in a pandemic – observant care of sick patients, using advanced AI to screen symptoms without questioning, cleaning complex medical devices in hospitals, doing contact tracing in the field to snuff out outbreaks (as was done effectively in Vietnam).
All of these would be a welcome use of robots – but there are no “agile” or “smart” robots around that can actually do any of this!
Robots can’t clean bedpans. Robots can’t sterilize equipment except by spraying the whole device – they aren’t dexterous enough to use cloth and cleaner on odd-shaped parts. Robots can’t drive cars (wait, can’t we get them a self-driving car? No.) Robots can’t ask people questions any better than an automated phone support system.
Consider that even getting out of a car is too much for the vaunted Boston Dynamics acrobat-robot, despite its acrobat skills:
What are we left with, when robots can’t do anything we need for this pandemic in the hospital? Greeters and Lecturers.
- Greeters replace a microphone + phone scripts with a big electric puppet barking friendly messages.
- Lecturers run around warning us of danger.
Is this really a good use of resources? Well, if you’re in the industry, it is soooo important that people understand humanoid robots are the future no matter what you do… Thefore, we will loan out our electric puppets to remind you they are the future. Never mind that these “robots” are just glorified microphones or megaphones; for medical personnel or crowd control.
Another wonderful quote from the same Protocol article:
“…UK-based data analytics firm, GlobalData, has said that a shortage of personal protective equipment will drive adoption of robots to treat COVID-19 patients in India...”
This is INSANE. Wouldn’t the cost of a humanoid robot be better spent on masks and other Personal Protection Equipment (PPE)? How many masks, gloves, PPE could I buy for the cost of renting a greeting robot?
The goal is not to improve efficiency. The goal is to awe the incoming, sickly natives with the future tech. But these greeter-bots aren’t doing anything much different than radio-controlled, tele-operated radio “robots” did 50 years ago in shopping malls. Mostly, people are just creeped out.
Think about it: Do you want a big electric puppet as your final companion during illness? Apparently some people thought Pepper, (the robot you’re not supposed to have sex with), is the perfect end-of-life friend.
Lamentable quotes from Pepper:
“…Please, wear a mask inside,” it said in a perky voice. “I hope you recover as quickly as possible…”
“…I pray the spread of the disease is contained as soon as possible…”
“…Let’s join our hearts and get through this together…”
If instead, you put up a sign with these messages, humans would assume they come from humans. But, if you have a robot say these messages, the popular perception is that the robot has ‘taken over’ from the humans. So reassuring!
This is a huge fail of User Experience Design (UX).
To be fair, the hospital has non-humanoid robots of the iRobot type which help with floor cleaning – but this is hardly news, since hospitals have been using these primitive kinds of robots since the late 1970s. Here’s a robot in an Indian hospital actually doing something…
Unfortunately, the same company has an insipid humanoid robot greeter for the sick:
A movie of Pepper barking orders at humans in Germany:
Here’s the point: you could have put up a cardboard cutout of the robot with an attached speaker in the mall, and had virtually the same effect! Better, since people would understand the cardboard cutout as created by humans, not as a future overload telling us what to do.
By tying a commanding robot into the pandemic, you’ve actually created and enabled the narrative that various nutbars out there want you to believe.
You know what these guys would say about Pepper, don’t you?
The American version of the “big electric puppet barking orders” completely freaked people out in NYC Central Park, and was removed in an hour because “it didn’t have a permit”:
Boston Dynamics probably knew that there would be a negative response, so it deployed its dog-bot barking orders to Singapore, where an initial apparent success in containing the virus failed, cases then spikes (very common in pandemics), and the authoritarian government thought it’s best bet was to play right into the conspiracy nutbars who think the pandemic was faked to bring in the reptilians, aliens, Illumanti, whatever.
How to enable the fringe-y right? Give them a robot overlord in the park! Note: this “robot”, like others, is actually tele-operated by a remote human, similar to flying a drone.
Video on Instagram at:
Frankly, we have a LOT of unemployed – why not send a person out, in a car with a megaphone, instead of an expensive robot that removes the human job? As the posts at the top of the article show, the risk is incredibly low, as long as you don’t pack people into parades.
Also note the cog-dissanyo dumbass of the person who posted this.
“…Dont worry about bumping into Spot as it is fitted with safety sensors to detect objects and people within 1m to avoid collision…Robots can observe safe distancing too!”
Safe distance is 6 feet or greater. The robot is modeling unsafe behavior.
Back to our India article. A priceless movie of a stiff electric puppet barking orders, apparently what robots will “do” in the future that must happen:
The Covid-19 pandemic is a great example of a human problem – robots don’t get the disease. Service robots (like a floor-cleaner) have some real value, but humanoid greeters and order-ers do not. Using these robots is an expensive waste of money that could be used for protective equipment.
And, the belief among tech-utopians that robots must be the future doesn’t justify diverting money to push their techie religion, versus spending on human health.