Can somebody page the Robot?

Computer engineers believe their robot assistants can be of service in an emergency room near you!  A few weeks ago, Vanderbilt University posted an article on their Facebook page about how their trauma unit might be ready to accept this new technology.  The new “TriageBot” was invented to provide a kind of relief for the often busy and chaotic atmosphere of the unit for both patients and employees.   Those who do not come through the doors of the emergency room with an immediate or life threatening condition can be serviced by this handy new robot, cutting down on time. The robot can check your blood pressure and pulse-making sure you are indeed alive at the time of entry.  It can ask questions about age and height, or any other protocol type information that needs to be gathered from an incoming patient.    TriageBot may also become mobile and be given the responsibility to check in on patients, checking for consciousness and asking patients to gauge pain levels.  The bot will be programmed to report potential problems to the emergency room staff. Of course, the machines will not be left on their own- they will have a human supervisor.  Still, will patients have the same sort of trust for these time-saving machines that they would for a human?

People often enter trauma units in a state of chaos.  An unforeseen event has taken away a person’s health, making them fragile and in need of a professional.  Whether someone has a baby that will not stop coughing, or has been mangled in a car accident, human attention is deserved.  How will the trauma unit make the decision of who is worthy of a human and who is not?  Kazuhiko Kawamura, a professor of engineering and computer science who was quoted in the article admits that the robot’s success will be determined by the patient’s reaction.  I wonder if he would be surprised to find that patients might not warm up to the idea of having a robot asking them questions about how they feel.

ROBOT: What is your pain level on a scale of 1-10?

PATIENT: I’ve hit my head.  I feel like I have a migraine and I don’t understand why I can’t see straight.  This is the worst head pain I’ve ever had.

ROBOT: What is your pain level on a scale of 1-10?

How is a robot to understand pain, tears, or urgency?  How are patients to understand and be comfortable with the care they are getting if they are speaking with a machine? A hospital employee might begin by asking a patient to explain their pain level using numbers, but then be able to better understand the situation based on how the patient responds- maybe even taking knowledge of how to help from a previous experience.

Kawamura also seems to be under the impression that the emergency room is the “perfect way to test” a new type of cognitive architecture within the machines- attempting to develop a working memory for better and faster robot decision-making.  Perhaps computer engineers should spend more time with the patients and employees to understand what sort of space these robots would be entering.  Maybe they would find that the emergency room is no place to be testing anything.  People are rushed through these doors in need of help, not a quick fix.   Will the robots offer a warm touch to the man with the confusing head wound?  Would it be able to understand a mother desperately trying to explain that something is wrong with her baby…something she might know instinctively? 

There is a lot of potential for computer technology in the world of medicine, but we need to express caution in how we use it.  A robot used to check a patient in might save on time, but also might disregard the very fragile state this person is experiencing.  Overall, the field of medicine needs to keep asking: What kind of healers are we becoming?

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