Deus ex Machina: The Role of the Robot in the COVID-19 Age

Robots were always envisioned as humanity’s helpers, but the pandemic has proved new use cases for this growing field of tech.

The global pandemic that we are undergoing crept up on the world and took us completely by surprise. Having never dealt with a crisis of this magnitude in recorded history, countries have been adopting varied strategies to battle COVID-19. 

Some places like Hong Kong have been implementing strict social distancing measures, countries like India and Spain enforced strict lockdowns for extended periods, while some countries like Sweden made the controversial decision to go about life as normal, in an attempt to develop ‘herd immunity’ in the population. 

Despite these ‘trial-and-error’ tactics yielding different results for different countries, the pandemic has inevitably shattered the supply chain and production processes across industries. While companies struggle to cope with the demands of building safer workspaces and keeping employees safe, and others chart out plans to prevent themselves from going underwater, an extra hand or two could certainly come in useful. 

This is where technological advancement in Artificial Intelligence (AI) comes into play. Constant innovation in the field of robotics has enabled scientists to greatly ease our troubles with the pandemic, in ways that are surprisingly adaptable to the needs of the current day.

A peek into their prowess 

Pudu Robotics, a Shenzhen-based high-tech enterprise, recently developed with the ‘Pudubot’, a robot which provides non-contact delivery service. This is particularly significant in the light of COVID-19, as it helps uphold hygiene levels and minimize contact between humans, thus reducing the risk of spreading infection. 

Pudubots can deliver an array of items, like meals, medicines and other supplies to patients, and have been employed in hospitals in many places, including Seoul, Beijing, and Wuhan. They are capable of achieving almost twice as much as their human counterparts; at their peak, a Pudubot delivers about 400 meal trays, whereas humans can only deliver about 200 a day. 

Carrying items from one place to another isn’t the only thing that robots are capable of; some can even fill in for frontline workers. The inherent risk of contracting the disease entailed by their duties, coupled with the importance of their role in the battle against COVID-19 implies that frontline workers would be grateful for some assistance. 

PEP3000 can provide them with that help. In early March, the robot, produced by Roborn, was present at the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department in Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong, scanning people and checking them for symptoms of the novel coronavirus. Using a thermal imaging camera, this robot can detect a fever up to eight meters away. 

When PEP3000 recognizes someone with a slightly higher temperature than the threshold set by management, it activates an alarm. It uses another camera for facial recognition, and takes images of people in front of the scanner, which can then be used for contract-tracing. This allows frontline workers to focus on other important aspects of dealing with the pandemic and redistributes their skills better, as there is a lower chance of them having to respond to false alarms. 

There has been increased emphasis on maintaining cleanliness in all public places with regular sanitization procedures. This is particularly important in places like airports, which are a hub for virus transmission. 

In April, the Hong Kong International Airport used three ‘Intelligent Sterilization Robots’ (ISR), produced by Time Medical Systems, to help with disinfecting the airport regularly. Using UV light and air sterilizers, the robots can remove 99.99% of bacteria in the air and on surfaces within just 10 minutes. 

In addition to the ISRs, the airport is also making use of Whizz robots, which are self-driving vacuum sweepers. This greatly eases the burden of employees who would have had to manually clean large surface areas, and also ensures a higher standard of sanitization. 

Despite the immensity of these developments, and the extent to which they have been vital to fighting the war against COVID-19, scientists and innovators are still trying to progress further in the field. Hong Kong inventor Dr. Ng Tze-chuen, for example, has designed a robot that can fight the virus using UV light. Even though his concepts of ‘scarecrow robot’ and ‘ceiling robot’ haven’t been turned into a reality, he hopes that they will, someday. 

Today, we are dealing with the pandemic using technologies that would have been unimaginable a few years earlier; clear evidence to the extent to which we have progressed in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics. Like Alec Ross, American technology policy expert, rightly predicted, “The robots of the cartoons and movies from the 1970s are going to be the reality of the 2020s.” 

Science fiction fatalism aside, robots have proven to be assets in the truest sense, for the capabilities of our steely sidekicks often surpasses our own. 

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

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