Coronavirus cases have spiked across the United States. There were 54,000 reported cases as of March 24—an increase of about 10,000 cases from the previous day, according to the CDC. Hospitals across the country are understaffed, under-supplied, and teetering on overcapacity. That combination leaves medical professionals dangerously vulnerable to contracting the virus.
One solution to minimize the exposure of doctors and nurses to patients who have contracted the virus is to use robots for routine tasks like taking a patient’s temperature or changing bedsheets. A hospital in China did exactly that. In February, robotics company CloudMinds donated 14 “humanoid” robots called Cloud Ginger (or the less memorable XR-1) to help staff the Wuchang field hospital in Hubei province—the same province as Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated.
Of course, you can’t just plop robots into a hospital and expect them to be embraced. There needs to be buy-in from patients and staff alike, and that involves designing robots that are a friendly and calming force. A hospital setting is stressful enough, and the company has found that the more human-like the robot, the more accepted it will be.
It’s counterintuitive, in a way. If robots look too similar to humans, we feel uneasy. This is due to a phenomenon called the “Uncanny Valley,” first coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. Basically, we find robots more approachable the more human-like they appear, but only up to a point. Then we start to have negative responses.
CloudMinds’s approach was to develop robots that are anthropomorphic—that is, they resemble humans but are in no way our spitting image. “When we designed the XR-1 Cloud Ginger humanoid service robot, we hoped to create an emotionally intuitive design, which aimed to connect with consumers while also breaking down the barrier between humans and the coldness of technology and machines,” says Bill Cui, industrial design manager at CloudMinds, over email.
Cui and his team accomplished this in a few key ways. First, they made Cloud Ginger appear emotional and relatable. They used “simple, cute, and cartoon design elements” like oversized eyes and a rounded smile to mask its cold, technical interior, which houses all the visual and sensory tech that a robot needs to operate. (Though those completely black eyes do creep me out a bit.) They additionally used fabric on Cloud Ginger’s chest and arms that’s a bit more inviting than a full-on metal droid. The textile components aren’t just for looks: They solve a technical problem of heat dissipation and limitations on the robot’s range of motion—specifically, the joints in its arms.
Cloud Ginger was also designed to engage with patients in ways that feel familiar and human. It has 34 actuators that allow it to simulate the ways humans move when they talk: flexible fingers, arms that gesticulate in conversation, and the ability to make eye contact. Its voice was carefully designed, too, according to Cui, and the team paid special attention to the robot’s pitch, tone, speaking cadence, and dialogue to approximate human speech patterns.
Cui claims that Cloud Ginger can actually understand the “meaning and context of language” (through algorithms, of course) that “allows it to read and understand human emotions so that it may become smarter and learn empathy.” It can even dance and lead patients through stretching exercises “to help patients stay active and in good spirits.”
Cloud Ginger isn’t the only robot working in hospitals. Hospitals in Thailand are repurposing “ninja robots” that were originally produced to monitor recovering stroke patients, as reported by Medical Xpress. While the blocky, matte black “ninja robots” don’t have the humanoid look of Cloud Ginger, their giant cartoon eyes give the user a sense of safety and approachability. Diligent Robotics developed a humanoid robot, Moxi, to help healthcare staff and mirror human movements: It has a human(-ish) head, with eyes that point in the direction it’s going, a torso, and arm with joints so it’s not “bulky and scary.” It can even flash heart eyes.
This approach tracks with a recent study from Germany’s Friedrich Schiller University Jena. It found that robots with human-like features were desirable—particularly among older people, who had a “clearly positive assessment” compared with a younger group of study participants. That’s especially important right now, considering that older adults are among the most vulnerable to contracting coronavirus.
According to Cui, hospitals can use robots on a 24-hour basis—they did so when trialing the robots at the Wuchang Smart Field Hospital—and reduce the burden of medical staff. This way doctors and nurses won’t just save the lives of others. They can just maybe save their own.