The future of robotics in the world has unquestionably changed due to the COVID-19. Not only are companies relying on automation like never before, but even hospitals are using robots for right from delivering food to even collecting swab samples of patients. In an interview with DataQuest, Jayakrishnan T, IEEE Member and CEO, ASIMOV Robotics talks about the future of robotics and automation, and the new normal in the field in the post-COVID-19 world.
DQ: What are the current trends in the field of Robotics?
Jayakrishnan T: Robotics and automation are all set to transform the world by the introduction of the digital workforce. It combines major game-changers like computer simulation, AR VR, Rapid prototyping, Collaborative robots, Big data analysis, IoT, High-speed internet and Cloud computing. These are in fact the major building blocks for the upcoming industrial revolution 4.0, which will facilitate robots to come out from the manufacturing industry to day-to-day activities; from iron cages to working alongside human beings; from repetitive tasks to intelligent jobs.
The new trend in robotics does not limit the revolution to physical robots. Since the outcome is a well-structured digital information, it can further be used to improve the performance of automation. As the robots are closer to human beings in the form of assistive or collaborative workforce or as companions, they will be able to provide highly personalised services unlike provided by human beings. As data become the key driver of both physical and administrative task automations, blockchain will fortify the challenges in data access and governance to ensure the regulatory and compliance aspects.
DQ: What is the role played by Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the field of robotics?
Jayakrishnan T: Though Robotics and AI are mutually complementing, they have a separate existence. Going back to the basic definition of robots as programmable machines, it is not necessary to use AI for undertaking repetitive and defined tasks like pick and place applications. Also, for telepresence and tele-op robots, AI is not required. AI can address many problems outside robotics related to perception, logical reasoning, language processing, statistical analysis, etc. Search engine recommendations are a typical example to this.
But when it comes to autonomous or semi-autonomous robots, AI is inevitable as the robot has to sense, interpret and respond to stimuli from the environment. They can be considered as artificially intelligent robots. For these robots, AI is extensively used to perform autonomous navigation, meaningful manipulation, audiovisual interaction, recognition and synthesis gestures expressions etc. In the long run, these robots may also be able to improve their performance matrix through machine learning. Driverless cars and humanoid robots fall into this category.
However, as robots are increasingly becoming a part of our life, the definition of ‘programmable machines’ could be replaced with ‘thinking machines’.
DQ: How important will robotics be in the field of healthcare?
Jayakrishnan T: Healthcare industry is facing major challenges such as a huge requirement of physicians, surgeons and skilled professionals in proportion with the increase in population, immediate availability of medical attention in case of emergencies and high probability of human errors in diagnostic and therapeutic processes.
However, with the advancement of robotics and supplementary technologies, it is possible to address these issues in the form of solutions like robotic surgery, predictive diagnostic, tele-medicine, medical logistics, etc.
Robotic Surgery, and Predictive diagnosis using AI-ML:
Robotic surgery is one of the fastest-growing and highly promising applications of technology into medicine. Robotization allows the surgeons to perform highly complicated procedures with ease due to the increased dexterity coupled with advanced HD 3D vision and precise maneuverability. The system provides fully-fledged real-time connectivity of the surgeon and the area under surgery in terms of Visual, Auditory, Tactile and Haptic means.
Conventional diagnostic methods based on symptoms only help to identify the ailment when it is advanced. With the current advancements in AI-ML, it is now possible to identify the onset of problems much earlier. It also prevents damage of organs and their functionalities as otherwise in the case of delayed diagnosis.
Telemedicine and Medical Logistics:
Telemedicine is becoming increasingly important. Along with the remote diagnosis, physicians are able to effectively utilise their time to be spent with multiple patients from multiple geographies and even collectively address a problem from various locations. The technologies used are IoT and wearables, and Video Conferencing. In advanced telemedicine systems, Robotics, VR along with Haptics are used. There is a constant need for the supply of medicine and other clinical consumables for patients under critical care. Remote villages and regions without proper transport infrastructure are prone to more health casualties due to a lack of medical supplies. Medical drones provide real-time delivery of medical supplies, and can even supply daily essentials without logistical constraints. Crucial medical supplies such as blood or organ transfers can be easily facilitated with cold chains.
DQ: Could Robots be the new normal in the post-COVID era?
Jayakrishnan T: As the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced the direction of the latest trends in all technology applications, it has become mandatory to maintain the new world order in every aspect of development. As far as robotics and automation are concerned, the COVID-19 impact has accelerated the adoption of these technologies to reduce the dependence on human beings.
Three important areas where robotics and AI can support in maintaining the new normal are Social Behaviour, Environmental Hygiene and Contactless Treatment &Nursing.
Social behaviour and Environmental Hygiene
Robots or intelligent systems can be installed in workplaces and public spaces to ensure that people are following the prescribed guidelines. For example, for ‘visitor screening ‘at the entrance of a workplace to ensure the body temperature of the visitor is at safe limit; ‘ensuring the use of masks’ via a robot or a machine vision system installed in public places/workplaces to detect the presence of mask on human faces; and ‘ensuring social distancing’ via an industrial-grade camera with vision processing in public places.
Contaminated air and improper disinfection and sterilization of gadgets and equipment are also the major reasons for infection. Robots can help in ‘automated cleaning’ and sanitization of handles, knobs, buttons, gadgets like mobile handsets, etc.; ‘managing air quality’ via an intelligent system with air-quality sensors to curb spread from respiratory droplets and suspended airborne particles; ‘large area disinfection and sanitization’ via automated scheduled cleaning with sophisticated disinfectants and sprays.
Contactless treatment & nursing
Not only are nurses, doctors, and other healthcare professionals needed to treat sick patients, but they also put themselves at high risk of contracting the disease themselves. The implementation of robotics here could help immensely. Having more robots implies less person-to-person contact, which means fewer healthcare workers get sick. This also reduces community transmission, while consuming fewer supplies of PPE. Robots can navigate inside the isolation ward to transport and dispense food and medical supplies. They can engage the patients and initiate video conferencing between patients and the physician/ caregiver. The COVID-19 outbreak has taught the world a number of lessons, an important one being the use of technological innovation in its full potential to build a robust healthcare system.
DQ: What does the future of robotics and automation look like?
Jayakrishnan T: Robotics and automation are going to rule all major market sectors in the coming years. Manufacturing, logistics, retail, hospitality, security, medical and education are the key sectors to experience this advancement in the first place.
The progress will be revolutionary. Robotics will continue to see advancement in military and space applications. Collaborative service robotics will gain importance. More floors will be swept; more lawns mowed by robots; more patients will be served. A new consumer-level robot will be released.