The Future of Robotic Healthcare: Drugs, Drones & Downton Abbey
This piece is a collaboration with my friend and mentor Bob Marchant, President and CEO of Modo Inc.
Somewhere in the past 72 hours, a robot has touched your life.
A machine in a wall might have handed you money or a package arrived from Amazon that had been sorted and moved by a small, motorized helper.
While you were returning emails, the robotic revolution quietly arrived. Now, the real work starts as we slowly integrate robots into the fabric of our everyday lives the same way simple, rectangular phones with black screens migrated from exotic to indispensable.
Google’s self-driving car is here now.
Daimler is shipping trucks with autonomous braking systems. Recently, President Obama released an FY17 budget proposal that includes a nearly $4 billion investment in vehicle automation. Intuitive Surgical, Medtronic and Verb Surgical are developing sophisticated robots for complex surgeries. With all these advances, why can’t a robot deliver drugs to a bedside?
There are risks and obstacles. Once you get past the technology hurdles, you come to business and human issues. No one wants robots wandering hallways. Are people ready for hospitals to be more complex and less human? How much automation is enough and can robotics make a positive difference?
One of the most daunting challenges in healthcare is getting the right drug to the right patient in the right dose at the right time using the right route (the Five Rights). The answer to deploying robotic medication delivery can be found in the laws governing drones and the behavior standards of Downton Abbey’s domestic servants. Venture capitalists and budding robotic entrepreneurs, read on…
Issac Asimov first addressed the governance of robotics in 1942 with three laws:
1)A robot is not allowed to do anything that would harm a human being.
2) A robot should always obey a human.
3) A robot should defend itself so long as this did not interfere with the first two rules.
Since Asimov’s laws are regarded more as a literary baseline than an actionable framework, in 2010, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) of the U.K. was more specific in developing the Five Ethical Rules of Robotics:
1) Robots should not be designed as weapons, except for national security reasons.
2) Robots should be designed and operated to comply with existing laws, including privacy.
3) Robots are products: as with other products, they should be designed to be safe and secure.
4) Robots are manufactured artifacts: the illusion of emotions and intent should not be used to exploit vulnerable users.
5) It should be possible to find out who is responsible for any robot.
The rules are offered to ensure robots are introduced in a way that engenders trust; maximizes public gains and heads off unintended consequences.
Since robots already have three laws and five rules, we thought it would be helpful to offer six guidelines for developing and deploying patient-facing robots:
1. Social Friction
Robots should be quiet, unobtrusive and routed through low traffic areas. Robots should yield the right of way to humans and should be as invisible as they can be at all times (Rules for Downstairs; Downton Abbey Etiquette Primer ).
Robots should be identified with the name and address of the owner (Drone Safety Code). Identification and accountability builds trust between caregivers (human or not) and patients.
3. Adoption, Not Perfection
To speed the acceptance of robots, developers should focus on adoption rather than perfection. Start with a modest automation success, let users adapt and build from there.
4. Ecosystems, Not Islands
Approach robots as elements of a larger ecosystem. Software can be flexibly upgraded. To maximize near term results, robots should live as nodes in a network rather than as untethered agents.
5. Less Human is More Human
By automating routine background tasks like transporting medications, robots create opportunities for deeper and more meaningful human-to-human interactions. By automating mundane tasks first, we can give nurses more time to spend with patients.
6. Patients First
Just because you can automate doesn’t mean you should. A simple rule is helpful in balancing technology and humanity: patients come first.
“I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.” 
Five years from now
an unassuming robot will move quietly down an unoccupied hallway to bring medications to your room. Your nurse will receive a text five minutes before the robot arrives letting her know your medication is on the way. As your nurse approaches, a proximity sensor will trigger a message to her phone asking for a security PIN. Your medications will be unlocked and delivered with a human touch, a warm smile and a caring assessment of your comfort and condition.
With common sense, designers and developers can make life better by weaving robots into healthcare. Let’s start by making something complex simple. Let’s start by automating medication delivery. The conversation has started…
The conversation has started…
Please share your thoughts and ideas for additional guidelines.