Why Bots Are Better When Paired With Humans in Trying Times And Beyond

Tommy Ong

General Manager Hong Kong, ST Engineering

The hospital is a hive of activities. Doctors and nurses walk about briskly, attending to one patient after another, while paramedics wheel in patients on gurneys at all hours. In their midst, an unmanned L-shaped machine gets to work unobtrusively.

It travels to a large metal food trolley and says politely to no one in particular: “Excuse me, please.”

Sensing that no person or object is in the way, it picks up the trolley and moves towards a lift. Its job is to deliver the food, piping hot, to patients on the 15th floor.

Elsewhere, another robot picks up a medical record trolley and brings it to a nurse, who has several patients under her charge. A third robot takes fresh linen to housekeeping staff.

As COVID-19 sends hospitals into overdrive, these robots, which make over five million deliveries each year, are helping frontline medical workers at a Hong Kong hospital with small, menial tasks. In doing so, automation also boosts efficiency and safety, helping to reduce the workload, and keep the staff sane.

While the service sector has traditionally been seen as a digital laggard, the global pandemic is accelerating the need to adopt robotics.

In the new normal, robots are set to become part of daily operations for many businesses in the sector in a safe and smart way – not by replacing human workers, but by playing a collaborative and complementary role in a human-centric environment.

Typical applications in healthcare for robots

  1. Surgical
  2. Pharmaceutical
  3. Laboratory
  4. Nutrition
  5. Materials
  6. Linen
  7. Waste
  8. Medical Record

Not limited to the above applications, but many in a way to be identified to overcome the manual errands running in hospitals.

A human-centric approach in airport

Robotics is not new. The technology is most commonly deployed in the manufacturing sector, where industrial robots are used to carry out high-volume, repetitive and even dangerous tasks.

In contrast, the take-up rate in the service sector, which includes hospitals, has been sluggish. The barriers to adopting robots are manifold, particularly where culture is concerned.

For someone undergoing appendix surgery in the hospital, for example, a nurse can help to assuage his pain and discomfort with an important element – the human touch. But he may not feel the same relief when attended to by an unfamiliar, faceless machine.

Other concerns like security, complexity, domain and safety are also stumbling blocks.

But these issues can be resolved with a robotics solution that is customer-focused, and customised to specific needs. The key is to take a human-centric approach and use robots to solve inherent and specific problems for the customer.

At the Hong Kong International Airport, one of the world’s busiest, we have modified and customised self-driving robots to handle fragile and odd-sized baggage safely, efficiently and reliably. This has helped to ease staffing issues, freeing up manpower for other more important tasks.

The airport has also deployed cleaning robots that are able to spray disinfectant and emit ultraviolet light to sanitise public areas such as toilets, as it steps up hygiene and safety measures in the ongoing battle against COVID-19. All of this is just the beginning.

The robots are taking over… not

In a post-COVID world, it is inevitable that robotics will play a greater role in business operations than ever, be it to cope with staff shortage and costs or to raise productivity and safety levels.

As we try to get our lives back on track and get used to a new normal, more facilities and businesses will resume. Robots can play an important role in enabling this recovery.

In the hospitality sector, one of the hardest hit amid the pandemic, robots can automate front-of-house operations or security functions. In helping hotels or casinos address cost, labour and safety issues, robots provide not just fringe benefits but also a means of getting them back on their feet.

Put simply, robotics may no longer be a luxury but a necessity.

Yet it is also not the entire solution. While robots and automation have long been portrayed as a formidable threat to jobs and livelihoods, we believe otherwise. The future of robotics and automation, in fact, depends on humans and robots working together, leveraging each other’s strengths.

Smart hospitals maximise their existing assets with smarter operational workflow that is facilitated by robots. If you look at our Hospital Operations Centre, it consolidates real-time data from disparate systems and sources to give hospitals an overview of the situation, and to feed into a system of analytics and prediction tools to optimise processes – hence sensemaking. The robots serve as just one source of data.

Ultimately, it will take both customer and system integrator to formalise the solution and “humanify” it, such that it supports and supplements – rather than to replace – the human.

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