I am Dr. Groot


The healthcare world is abuzz with Dr. David Feinberg’s departure from Google Health – another tech giant is shocked to find healthcare was so complicated! – while one of those tech giants (Amazon) not only just surpassed Walmart in consumer spending but also is now planning to build its own department stores.  Both very interesting, but all I can think about is robots. 

Most of the recent publicity about robots has come from Elon Musk’s announcement of the Tesla Bot, or the new video of Boston Dynamic’s Atlas doing more amazing acrobatics, but I was more intrigued by Brooks Barnes’s New York Times article Are You Ready for Sentient Disney Robots? 

Like many industries that serve consumers, healthcare has long been envious of Disney’s success with customer experience.  Disney even offers the Disney Institute to train others in their expertise with it.  Disney claims its advantage is: “Where others let things happen, we’re consistently intentional in our actions.”  That means focusing on “the details that other organizations may often undermanage—or ignore.” 

You’d have to admit that healthcare ignores too many of the details, allowing things to happen that shouldn’t.  

One of the things that Disney has long included in its parks’ experience were robots.  It has had robots in its parks since the early 1960’s, when it introduced “audio-animatronics” – mechanical figures that could move, talk, or sing in very life-like ways.  Disney has continued to iterate its robots, but, as Mr. Barnes points out, in a world of video games, CGI, VR/AR, and, for heaven’s sake, Atlas robots doing flips, its lineup was growing dated. 

Mr. Barnes quotes Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, from an April presentation: “We think a lot about relevancy.  We have an obligation to our fans, to our guests, to continue to evolve, to continue to create experiences that look new and different and pull them in. To make sure the experience is fresh and relevant.” 

Enter Project Kiwi. 

In April, Scott LaValley, the lead engineer on the project, told TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino: “Project KIWI started about three years ago to figure out how we can bring our smaller characters to life at their actual scale in authentic ways.”  The prototype is Marvel’s character Groot, featured in comic books and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (he is famous for only saying “I am Groot,” although apparently different intonations result in an entire language). 

By 2021, they had a functioning prototype:

Mr. Barnes reported that his interactions with the would-be Groot were quite remarkable.  It spoke to him, reacted to his initial non-response, and, eventually, “I wanted to hug him. And take him home.”  Mr. Panzarino was similar impressed: “Multiple times throughout my interaction I completely forgot that it was a robot at all.” 

That’s the goal.  “And all of this technology must disappear, which takes a crazy amount of engineering,” Leslie Evans, Disney’s Senior Imagineer, told Mr. Barnes. “We don’t want anyone thinking, ‘That’s the most sophisticated robot I have ever encountered.’ It has to be: ‘Look! It’s Groot!”

According to CNBC, “Project Kiwi is heading for the “play test” stage, where the Imagineers bring the character into the park to interact with guests and gather feedback. The company has not shared when this will take place or at which park.”  

Groot is only the beginning.  Mr. Barnes said:

He is a prototype for a small-scale, free-roaming robotic actor that can take on the role of any similarly sized Disney character. In other words, Disney does not want a one-off. It wants a technology platform for a new class of animatronics.

CNBC also reported on Disney’s Project Exo, which is similarly creating a “full body exoskeleton system” as a platform to bring to life larger characters (think the Incredible Hulk). 

The Disney world is already speculating on whether the goal is to replace human workers in the parks (walking around in the heat in those Disney character costumes is no picnic), but Mr. Barnes believes it is more about Disney needing to change traditionally passive experiences into more interactive ones.  Ms. Evans told him: “These aren’t just parks. They are inhabited places.”   

If, as Elon Musk believes, “the economy is, at the foundation, labor,” then there may be no sector in which this is more true than in healthcare (especially long term care).  Tech companies may be failing in healthcare because they think adding a tech layer will “fix” things, but our current system isn’t going anywhere until we address labor – its costs, its supply limitations, its productivity output.   The pandemic almost broke our healthcare workers last year, and the recent surge is overwhelming them again

Healthcare could use more robots. 

Yes, there are robots in healthcare.  People often point out to robotic surgery, which has not managed to reduce costs, improve quality, or remove the human component.  There are also delivery robots (often used in hospitals), “patient simulators,” even companions, but, honestly, we need more robots like Hanson Robotics’ Grace, specifically aimed for healthcare.  “I can visit with people and brighten their day with social stimulation … but can also do talk therapy, take bio readings and help healthcare providers,” Grace “told” Reuters. 

It’s not there yet; it would need considerable evolution to play a significant role in our healthcare system, but, with the right investments, it will get there.  And, yes, eventually there will be robot doctors, powered by AI. 

Mr. Panzarino brings up the field of human-robot interaction (HRI), and asserts that, of all the companies, industries, and academic centers working on it, “the most incredibly interesting work in this space is being done in Imagineering R&D.”   Again, as the Disney Institute preaches, focusing “on the details that other organizations may often undermanage – or ignore.”

I wish healthcare was leading HRI. 

Healthcare needs to change its customer experience from passive to interactive.  If Disney recognizes the need to stay “fresh and relevant,” that is all-the-more so in healthcare.  Healthcare thinks it is in the care business, but it must also recognize it is in the experience business – and that its experience currently is pretty woeful (often literally).  It’s undermanaging and often ignoring the details that make up that experience.  And when does technology in healthcare ever “disappear”? 

Robots alone aren’t going to change all that in healthcare, but the level of attention – to detail, to relevancy, to customer experience — that Disney brings to its robotics efforts could go a long way. 

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now a regular THCB contributor.

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