Artificial Robotic Human Companions and their Effect on Society
Over the past century, mankind has made tremendous advancements in molding the world around him to be as comfortable as possible for his stay. Thanks to technology, man has achieved great feats, some hitherto technological advancements thought impossible. Landing on the moon, probes to Mars, the ability to fly, bullet trains, instant communication regardless of distance, and digital devices and services are among technological attestations of man’s achievements over the past 100 years (Clavel et al.,2013). Technology continues to play a pivotal role in man’s life and wellbeing today, particularly machines with the ability to undertake tasks either impossible for humans to execute or would take much longer time to finish. Of all technological innovations and inventions, robots are perhaps some of the most fascinating, given man’s intention of the machines to mimic human actions, emotions, and intelligence. While robots have found wide use in factories and other human-perilous environments, they are fast morphing to human companion in addition to providing cutting-edge precision in medicine. How then have robots moved from industrial-centric environments to becoming possible human companions? How are artificial robots used in the medical field? The paper hopes to answer these questions.
Clavel et al. (2013) inform that robots and virtual characters are fast becoming commonplace in everyday life. These machines take a wide variety of roles such as homo robots, user interface, coaches, and affective supporters among others. They interact with human within an intricate social world, requiring them to develop and maintain long-term, trusting, and charming relationship with their users (Clavel et al.,2013). To reach levels of developing such cordial relationships with users, humans have advanced the technology over the years to ensure safety.
The idea of creating a machine that mimic human movements and functions has existed since antiquity. Czech writer Karel Capek introduced the word robot in 1921 in the play Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R) (Singer, 2009). The word means a hard worker in Czech. Robotics, the word that defines the field of robots, was introduced by Issac Asimov, who saw the need to stipulate and categorize what a robot is. Issac introduced the three laws of robotics in 1949, which continue to guide the field to date. The laws include not injuring humans, obeying laws given by humans, except when the law conflicts the first law, and protection of its existence unless it contradicts the first two laws. A fourth law later came into being and stated: a robot may not injure humanity or allow humanity to come to harm. Simon (2018) argues that perhaps the laws were in hindsight of the murderous tendencies of robots as depicted in Capek’s R.U.R.
The laws have been instrumental in guiding the development of robots, especially as humans began looking at robots as social companions. Chanseau (2016) defines a companion robot as one with the ability to provide valuable aid in a socially acceptable manner. Following the rules, a robot companion’s foremost goal, therefore, is assisting humans. Korn et al. (2018) inform that the idea of robots as social companions began in the 18th century with the success of the “Mechanical Turk” created by Wolfgang von Kempelen. While it was a fake automaton that had a human chase master hiding inside, the fact that it fooled everyone to believe it was an automated system that could provide companion sowed the seeds of robots as social companions.
While the Turk was a fake, 20th century brought leaps in technological advances. First among human assistants at home was the vacuum cleaner (Chanseau, 2016). Its invention and mass production did much to improve household cleaning. In the push towards creating robots as social companions, humans have battled with the mixed emotions of fear and fascination. Fear of what robots may become in case they choose to defy laws as illustrated by films such as Terminator and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Fascination, on the other hand, is on the possibility of creating life, albeit not real life, and in so doing usurping the power of divinity.
Robots as social companions have come a long way from the vacuum cleaner to dogs that could mimic animal features. The early companions were largely remote controlled. The past ten years, however, have seen the rise and growth of artificial intelligence, which has been instrumental in creating even better robotic human companions. Korn et al. (2018) posit that thanks to artificial intelligence, robots can today learn and adopt human behavior. “Sophia” is perhaps one of the most famous robots, developed by Hanson Robotics. Sophia is capable of answering questions and holding conversations. While the answers are preprogrammed, the fact that it is capable of appropriating answers to the questions shows great leaps in social robotics. Yet Sophia is not the only robot of note: there are claims that the chef robot from Moley Robotics is capable of making 2,000 different meals (Chanseau, 2016). Clavel et al. (2013) inform of Paro, a fluffy baby harp seal robot used for enhancing the elderly’s wellbeing, Emotirob, Nao and iCat all used as companions. Today, virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana are all major examples of virtual social robots acting as human companions.
At the onset of robotics, many technologists at the time looked at ways of infusing robot in factory lines. Some jobs were too strenuous, others too dangerous for humans. With increased demand for finished goods, the need to cut costs, and meet delivery deadlines, factories looked to robots to change the tide. Today, robots are a mainstay in factory assembly lines doing jobs faster, accurately, and cheaper than human labor. The results of robotic in factory assembly lines have been impressive, naturally enticing other areas to begin employing robots. Medicine is one of the sectors that have taken up robotic. Areas in medicine that robots have been instrumental include psychology, patient monitoring, operations, and recuperation.
Psychology has benefitted from robotics, given the number of robots developed to help patients. Paro, the furry baby harp seal robot is an example of robots in psychology. According to Clavel et al. (2013), “Paro is used to enhance the health and psychological wellbeing of elderly users . It has five kinds of sensors: tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors, with which it can perceive people and its environment” (p. 4). Emotirob, on the other hand, is a teddy bear robot developed to bring comfort to children in hospital. Through sensors, the teddy bear identifies and reacts accordingly to the child’s emotions.
In patient monitoring, healthcare providers have deployed robots to help in monitoring and reporting patient vitals and progress. Mabu is a robot assistant performing monitoring and reporting of congestive heart failure patients (Park, 2019). Mabu, an AI-powered robot with the capability of blinking its eyes as humans ask questions to monitor patients’ health. Park (2019) informs, “The questions she asks come from a recipe that combines best practices that doctors use to monitor heart-failure patients with data from how physicians interact with patients — the questions they ask as well as how they respond — to isolate and manage not just medical symptoms but psychological barriers like anxiety and depression that often make dealing with chronic diseases difficult.” Perhaps the most fascinating fact is that Mabu does not repeat the same questions daily, but rather changes the questions in line with the patient’s answers. AI is obviously behind such alteration, and the fact that she asks different questions breaks the monotony of traditionally machine-generated questions.
IBM Watson is yet another example of artificial robots in medicine. Watson for Oncology was a partnership between IBM and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the creation of an algorithm for improvements in diagnosis and treatment of different types of cancers (Park, 2019). Although many of the hospitals that received the program halted its use citing potentially dangerous treatment recommendations and difficulties in retrieving relevant patient information from electronic health records, the program had great potential. Moreover, given that it was 2001, much of AI had not undergone finetuning as is the case today. It, however, showed greater promise especially in diagnosis, analysis, and suggestion of a treatment plan. Loh (2018) informs that while it took human experts 160 hours to diagnose, analyze, and formulate a treatment plan for a cancer patient, it took Watson only 10 minutes. Watson analyzed the genome of the patient’ brain cancer and formulated a treatment plan in a fraction of the time it took human experts, pointing to greater promise, accuracy, and time-saving.
Watson is at best, a small bump on the road as far as the use of robots in medicine is concerned. While robotic surgical devices exist today, many require human manipulation for the operation process (Loh, 2018). With the refinement of AI, however, things are fast changing as robotic surgery continue to experience great breakthroughs. For instance, in 2016, “a smart surgical robot stitched up a pig’s small intestines completely on its own and was able to do a better job on the operation than human surgeons who were given the same task” (Loh, 2018, p. 60). While the feat achieved by the robot was largely a trial, more impressive was the Chinese robot dentist successful completion of surgery. Loh (2018) avers that in 2017, a Chinese dentist robot was able to successfully perform implant surgery by fitting two new teeth into a woman’s mouth. The robot dentist did the surgery autonomously without any human intervention.
Human technological advances have come a long way. The advances continue to make great leaps thanks to history and AI. AI is fast developing to become part of everyday life transcending transport, communication, and medicine. Moreover, through AI command-centric robots are becoming more intelligent. Robots are fast moving from their hitherto relegation in assembly lines to social companions. As physical and virtual companions, robots are fast permeating human society, even as more and more humans continue to rely on them. Medicine is one of the sectors that continues to see growth in the use of artificial robotics. Robots have become instrumental in monitoring and caring of patients, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases, as well as in surgery. Thanks to AI, robots will continue to permeate daily human lives as assistants, companions, tools, and professionals in various aspects.
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