In November, with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa showing no signs of slowing, the list of people climbing aboard planes to Liberia and Sierra Leone was not terribly long. Deborah Theobald, the co-founder of Cambridge-based health care company Vecna Technologies, was one of them. Accompanying her were two new tools that, it was hoped, could aid health workers trying to care for stricken patients.
One was a briefcase-sized electronic medical record system, a field-ready version of a product that Vecna Technologies designed to digitally store and share patient information. The other was “telepresence” robot made by New Hampshire company VGo Communications — a camera and recording system on wheels that could be controlled from afar by an iPad app, meant to help nurses talk to each other across containment zones.
Taking a robot to the site of a disaster can be tricky. As it happened, Theobald’s team brought a robot to the field just as an international conversation among aid-workers and governments was heating up over the place of robots in medical emergencies.
Rescue robots have been assisting first responders in the United States since 9/11. A few were pressed into duty again after Hurricane Katrina, and then again in Japan after the earthquake in Fukushima, but so far they have stayed broadly clear of purely medical emergencies.
But now, American researchers and government officials see health emergencies as the next frontier in robotics. This week, international teams will participate in DARPA’s Robotics Challenge, designed simulate real-life disaster scenario.
While it’s clear that powerful institutions are serious about having robots help in moments of crisis, there’s also plenty of trepidation about how the technology will fit into the protocol.
In November, for example, robotics researchers and federal officials gathered to examine the use of robots during the Ebola outbreak. Up for discussion was, for example, was the issue of social sensitivity. There were robots that could help with the most dangerous tasks during the outbreak — the burial of Ebola victims — but was it going to be feasible to have machines perform intensely personal work that is soaked in culture and tradition?
It was in the midst of this larger debate that Theobald traveled to Liberia with a bot in tow.
As she recently recounted for the Science, Systems and Global Impact conference in Cambridge, Theobald found that the responses to her robotic assistant varied. At the Monrovia medical center where she worked, Theobald said, the strongest response came from visiting foreign doctors from Europe and the the United States who “were very concerned that the robot would be seen as black magic.”
Though those professionals were already using tablet devices to make video calls, the idea of a similar device moving around itself seemed to be stepping over a line. “They thought would be too much for the people in the ward, already nervous about what’s happening to them.”
Theobald said she was unable to ask the patients themselves. “So I don’t know how valid that is,” she said.
Another team of international doctors, this time from Kenya, were more optimistic. “I was asking for their opinions and letting them drive it,” Theobald remembered. “The Kenyans were like, ‘We’ll be fine! This is great, sure we’ll use it.’ ”
But there was another dissenting group among the medical team: the nurses.
Theobald learned slowly that because much of the medical protocol was pre-set, the doctors weren’t called on to make medical decisions, leaving much of the care to the nursing staff. The nurses told Theobald that a robot would give doctors yet another excuse to avoid meeting patients.
And so the robot never made it past trials, and was never called to assist the team. Theobald said she faced similar resistance when she took the bot to Sierra Leone. When it was time to return to the United States, Theobald left the robot with her medical partners, and emails them every few weeks about test-driving it again.
“I was first completely disappointed. And then I thought, you know, this is really good information,” Theobald said. Robots may have a key role to play in emergency response one day, but first they’ll have to earn the trust of humans wary of new technologies in times of crisis. Theobald intends to take another robot into the field the next chance she gets.