I haven’t even eaten breakfast yet, and somehow, I almost just lost my lunch.
I’ve just watched the Nasal Swab Robot at work, swabbing a patient for COVID-19. Developed by the robotics company Brain Navi, the robot has completed 15 successful human tests in Taiwan as Brain Navi applies for emergency approval to be deployed in the U.S.
The premise is simple: Instead of putting a human at risk when testing citizens for COVID-19, let a robot do the job instead. And on paper, that makes sense. The Nasal Swab Robot was developed in eight weeks, built largely upon Brain Navi’s Naotrac robot, which the company dubs “autopilot” brain surgery. It’s essentially a robot arm connected to a big computer in a box. It uses 3D cameras and AI to recognize parts of the brain and assist, or even complete, neurosurgical procedures such as brain tissue biopsies.
Now, I’m not here to question the folks at Brain Navi. Their robot surely performs brain surgery better than I ever could. But simply retrofitting that system to recognize your face and slide a swab up your nose misses an important detail: This machine is terrifying.
The chin rest gleams with the sheen of stainless steel, evoking memories of A Clockwork Orange. The patient must place their head inside this contraption, and then face the robot as it prepares for the test. A human technician, manning the bot, presses start. And that’s when the robot slowly, oh so slowly, pulls a long swab out of its box—like a torturer choosing just the right piece of pain from his toolkit. With each extra inch of white Q-tip extracted from the box comes the revelation that an extra inch is going to be inserted that much deeper into your nose.
Then, in a most suspenseful ballet, the robot arm pirouettes, positioning the swab like a knife that takes a full 10 seconds to make its way toward your face. Only then does it finally come into contact with your nostril, at which point the robot adjusts its angle for your comfort and inserts the swab into your head.
The full process takes just one minute and 10 seconds, but I imagine that one minute and 10 seconds feels like an eternity in the chair.
Truthfully, this machine doesn’t need to feel so scary! Any decent industrial designer could weigh in with all sorts of fixes, from altering the machine’s fit and finish to appear softer and friendlier, to rethinking the animation of the process, to ensure that this elongated swab doesn’t stalk a patient in plain sight, edging up right in front of someone’s face with so much dread and doom.
And while I’m laughing a bit at this robot’s expense, the soft touch of healthcare matters, and traumatic experiences in hospital settings can have profound effects on someone long-term. An unsettling environment, or a treatment in which someone experiences pain, confusion, or powerlessness, can cause PTSD, leaving people with lingering anxiety over medical treatment. In the U.S., we need to do everything we can to increase COVID-19 testing, not scare people away from it.
Because I have little doubt that a machine can take a nasal swab just as accurately or even better than a human. But I’m already plenty afraid of this pandemic. Please do not automate my nightmares.