The Best Nurses for Ebola: Robots?

Ebola is a disease that preys on human connection. To fight it, new technologies are attempting to industrialize human distance.

Michelle Dynes and Anne Purfield, two CDC epidemiologists, recently returned to the U.S. from Sierra Leone, where they had been responding to the county's Ebola outbreak. They told the story of a baby whose mother had died of the disease, and who had been placed, for the safety of hospital workers, in a box. The precaution ended up being futile. When nurses saw the baby—motherless, isolated, untouched—they couldn't resist cuddling and caring for the helpless little human.
"And then twelve of them got Ebola," Purfield recalled. "And one survived."
"Because," Dynes added, "they couldn't just watch a baby sitting alone in a box."
Ebola is a cruel disease in many ways, but one of the worst is that it preys on the very things that help make us who we are, as a species: our need for community. Our impulse for love. Our inability to see a baby, abandoned, and not reach out. Ebola preys on human bodies, by way of human souls.
From a technological standpoint, the best way to combat all of this is for the healthy to distance themselves from the stricken. And the most obvious way to do that is to remove human interaction from the equation. And the most obvious way to do that may involve removing humans themselves from the equation—at least when it comes to the care of the sick.
On November 7, scientists will convene at universities across the country to consider the role that autonomous machines might play in combating the Ebola crisis. Telepresence robots, Computer World reports, could theoretically do some of the healthcare work that suit-wearing humans currently do—including the delivery of food and medicine to the sick, the decontamination of equipment, and the burial of the dead. Robots could also act as interpreters between patients and doctors. They could also provide interactive checklists—the same types that aircraft pilots rely on for take-off and landing procedures—to medical workers who are putting on and removing safety equipment. (Dressing for Ebola caregiving is currently a 30-step process.)
The brainstorming sessions—November 7's version will be only the first of a planned series—are taking place, The New York Times notes, with the assistance of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. They will include not just academic researchers and commercial roboticists, but also healthcare workers and relief workers. They will be held in four separate locations: the University of California, Berkeley; Texas A&M University; the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts; and in Washington. (They will also be simulcast.)
"The workshop is for us to shut up and listen to them and take what we hear them say and use it," Robin Murphy, a professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M and the director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, told Computer World. "They'll talk about what they need and then we can talk about what we can offer … What can we do in the next few months and then what do we need to do in the longer term? What should we have five years from now?"
Epidemiology has always had a need for objects that keep human bodies—which offer, on top of everything else, warm, wet homes for microbes—separate from each other. Latex gloves. Surgical masks. Infrared thermometers, capable of taking temperature without the need for touch. But Ebola, contagious only through direct contact, brings a new kind of urgency to that need. The tools that will help to fight it will involve a kind of industrialized distance—human contact, without human touch.
Which is not to say that the tools will be easily built. The scientists involved in the robotic strategy sessions face a significant challenge. Autonomous machines have long been used in medicine for targeted purposes like surgery; they have also been used as human stand-ins when it comes to targeted tasks—disarming bombs, for example—in the world at large. But artificial intelligence is still nascent, as a field and an industry; the dexterity that we humans take for granted—of our minds, of our eyes, of our arms and legs and fingers—is notoriously difficult to translate to mechanized computer programs. "As was the case in Fukushima, the Ebola crisis in Africa has revealed a significant gap between robot capabilities and what is needed in the realm of disaster relief and humanitarian assistance,” Gill Pratt, a roboticist at DARPA, told the Times. “We have a moral obligation to try and select, adapt and apply available technology where it can help, but we must also appreciate the difficulty of the problem."