So the roboticists switched problems. Instead of replacing the humans who delivered meals, they created a simple tele-presence robot that could visit patients and provide a live link to a loved one. The device was made from off-the-shelf parts, inexpensive, easy to maintain, and didn’t require overworked hospital staff to spend any time on it. And patients and relatives loved being able to see and hear one another.
Ready or not
Not everyone is convinced a new robot age is dawning. Skeptics point out that even supposedly “autonomous” robots often need a human supervisor to jump in when the machine is stumped by the challenge of navigating streets, hospitals, warehouses, or homes. For now, most of the work COVID-19 created—in patient care, delivery, enforcement, and other areas—is still performed by people.
A different concern is that robots may prove to be too good at what they do—that they’ll permit massive surveillance and privacy violation, or that they’ll make it too easy to do harm to the environment in the name of pandemic response. Last winter flying robots in China were used to douse public places with disinfectants, Murphy noted. “We don’t know what the environmental impact has been,” she said in an email. “There has not been any data on which disinfectants are being used in what concentrations and whether there was any runoff into sewers and water supply.”
Murphy and her colleagues recently surveyed reports in social media, journalism, and scholarly journals about robots’ use related to COVID-19. Out of 262 reports between March and July, 45 focused on ethical concerns, the survey revealed. Of those, 17 were about threats of excessive surveillance or violations of privacy.
Then, as always with robots, there are fears for people’s jobs. In the spring, as the pandemic was ramping up, employers adopting robots were focused on protecting their employees, not replacing them. But that may be changing, Murphy says.
“Around June, we began to see a call for increased automation, not to increase capacity or handle surge but to handle worker loss,” she says. Meatpacking plants, e-commerce warehouses, and other facilities are considering robot workers as a way to keep human employees safely distant from one another, Murphy says. “We may get some job displacement or job loss as a result. We don’t know how that’s going to turn out.”
Still, people around the world appear more willing than ever to let robots do work once done by humans, and there are more robot makers than ever offering products in response. The COVID-19 pandemic has launched a global experiment in how, where, and why to insert robots into daily life.
“Times are good for robotics, although they’re not good for us as a society,” Antonio Bicchi, a professor of robotics at the University of Pisa, told a panel on robotics and COVID-19 in May, at the annual (and this year virtual) International Conference on Robotics and Automation. “For robotics, this is a time to help. And I think we are ready.”