Robots Unleashed on Ebola?

On November 7, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will host a conference that holds lifesaving potential for thousands of Americans.

The idea being presented at the conference is simple yet profound: If humans keep contracting deadly diseases from other humans, why not lessen people’s involvement in the patient care process?

Better yet, why not replace them with technology?

Here’s how Obama, along with a team of experts, plans to do just that…

Robot Protection

The White House has teamed with Texas A&M, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), and the University of California, Berkeley to hold what’s known as the “Safety Robotics for Ebola Workers” conference.

During the meeting, they’ll discuss how robots can stop the spread of Ebola in its tracks. You see, though there are only three confirmed cases in the United States, this pandemic is highly contagious and extremely deadly.

In fact, the current Ebola outbreak has infected more than 10,000 people in West Africa, and more than 4,400 have died from the disease. Liberia itself has had more than 4,200 cases, with 2,400 confirmed deaths.

That’s why both wheeled robots and telepresence robots are being considered to help fight the disease. And though the solution may sound a little futuristic, it’s also feasible and could be very effective.

You see, there’s almost nothing that a human can do (task-wise) that robo-replacements can’t: food and medicine delivery, body burials, even disinfecting contaminated areas.

The wheeled robots would come along with attached sprayers to decontaminate equipment. And telepresence robots would allow the sick to have contact with their loved ones (as well as healthcare workers) while under quarantine.

Facing Fears Head On

The upcoming conference is likely to be the first of many meetings about Ebola prevention. According to Robin Murphy, a Professor of Robotics at Texas A&M, robotics experts want to learn how best to assist aid workers.

She told Computerworld: “The workshop is for us to shut up… and listen to them… and take what we hear them say, and use it. They’ll talk about what they need, and then we can talk about what we can offer.”

Not surprisingly, though, the upcoming conference is fostering some logical concerns, such as, “Will things become too impersonal in the way Ebola patients are handled?”

Taskin Padir, an Assistant Professor of WPI, assures: “Whatever technology we deploy, there will be a human in the loop. We are not trying to replace human caregivers. We are trying to minimize contact. We are trying to identify the technologies that can help human workers minimize their contact with Ebola.”

But Murphy also presented another cultural-religious hump to get over…

She confessed, “My fear was, there are a lot of construction robots, like the little bots that scooped up debris and covered things with dirt in Fukushima, but that would be horrible – disrespectful. That was a person. We’re not just going to bulldoze them into a grave. And there are cultural sensitivities. There are local burial customs, and people need to say ‘good-bye’ to their loved ones.”

You see, in West Africa, the Islamic societies are most prone to spreading the disease because they’re required by Sharia law to wash the bodies of their deceased family members and prepare them for burial.

This is concerning, of course, because patients are most contagious at the time of death and in the days after. Scientists, therefore, are hoping that the Islamic faithful will allow robots to handle the bodies of the deceased in order to end the constant retransmission of Ebola to family members.

Whether robot assistance will ultimately help remains to be seen. Regardless, Obama has taken at least one positive stride toward stopping this deadly pandemic.

Your eyes on the Hill,

Floyd Brown

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Floyd Brown

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