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If You’ve Seen One Robot – Wait, What?

BY KIM BELLARD

If You’ve Seen One Robot – Wait, What?

We think we know robots, from the old school Robbie the Robot to the beloved R2-D2/C-3PO to the acrobatic Boston Dynamics robots or the very human-like Westworld ones.   But you have to love those scientists: they keep coming up with new versions, ones that shatter our preconceptions.  Two, in particular, caught my attention, in part because both expect to have health care applications, and in part because of how they’re described.

Hint: the marketing people are going to have some work to do on the names. 

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Let’s start with the robot called by its creators – a team at The Chinese University of Hong Kong — a “magnetic slime robot,” which some in the press have referred to as a “magnetic turd robot” (see what I mean about the names?).  It has what are called “visco-elastic properties,” which co-creator Professor Li Zhang explained means “sometimes it behaves like a solid, sometimes it behaves like a liquid…When you touch it very quickly it behaves like a solid. When you touch it gently and slowly it behaves like a liquid”  

The slime is made from a polymer called polyvinyl alcohol, borax, and particles of neodymium magnet. The magnetic particles allow it to be controlled by other magnets, but also are toxic, so researchers added a protective layer of silica, which would, in theory, allow it to be ingested (although Professor Zhang warned: “The safety [would] also strongly depend on how long you would keep them inside of your body.”).  

The big advantage of the slime is that it can easily deform and travel through very tight spaces.  The researchers believe it is capable of “grasping solid objects, swallowing and transporting harmful things, human motion monitoring, and circuit switching and repair.”  It even has self-healing properties.

Watch it in action:

In the video, among other tasks, the slime surrounds a small battery; researchers see using the slime to assist when someone swallows one.  “To avoid toxic electrolytes leak[ing] out, we can maybe use this kind of slime robot to do an encapsulation, to form some kind of inert coating,” Professor Zhang said.

As fate would have it, the news of the discovery hit the on April 1st, leading some to think it was an April Fool’s joke, which the researchers insist it is not.  Others have compared the magnetic slime to Flubber or Venom, but we’ll have to hope we make better use of it.  

It is not yet autonomous, so some would argue it is not actually a robot, but Professor Zhang insists, “The ultimate goal is to deploy it like a robot.”  

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If magnetic slime/turd robots don’t do it for you, how about a “magnetic tentacle robot” – which some have deemed a “snakelike” robot?  This one comes from researchers at the STORM Lab at the University of Leeds.  STORM Lab’s mission is: 

We strive to enable earlier diagnosis, wider screening and more effective treatment for life-threatening diseases such as cancer…We do so by creating affordable and intelligent robotic solutions that can improve the quality of life for people undergoing flexible endoscopy and laparoscopic surgery in settings with limited access to healthcare infrastructures.

In this particular case, rather than using traditional bronchoscopes, which might have a diameter of 3.5 – 4 millimeters and which are guided by physicians, the magnetic tenacle robot offers a smaller, more flexible, and autonomous option.  Professor Pietro Valdastri, the STORM Lab Director, explained:

A magnetic tentacle robot or catheter that measures 2 millimetres and whose shape can be magnetically controlled to conform to the bronchial tree anatomy can reach most areas of the lung, and would be an important clinical tool in the investigation and treatment of possible lung cancer and other lung diseases.   

Moreover, “Our system uses an autonomous magnetic guidance system which does away for the need for patients to be X-rayed while the procedure is carried out.” A patient-specific route, based on pre-operative scans, would be programmed into the robotic system.  It could then inspect suspicious lesions or even deliver drugs. 

Dr. Cecillia Pompili, a thoracic surgeon who was a member of them team, says: “This new technology will allow to diagnose and treat lung cancer more reliably and safely, guiding the instruments at the periphery of the lungs without the use of additional X-rays.”  

Watch it in action:

Magnetic Tentacle Robot – YouTube

The robot was tested on a 3D replica of a bronchial tree, and will next be tested on lungs from a cadaver.  It will likely take several years to reach clinical settings.  The team has also created a prototype of a low-cost endoscope and a robotic colonoscopy system, among other things.   

The researchers conclude

We demonstrate that the proposed approach can perform less invasive navigation and more accurate targeting, compared with previously proposed magnetic catheterization techniques… we believe that atraumatic autonomous exploration of a wide range of anatomical features will be possible, with the potential to reduce trauma and improve diagnostic yield.”

“It’s creepy,” Professor Valdastri admitted to The Washington Post. “But my goal … is to find a way to reach as deep as possible inside the human body in the least invasive way as possible… Depending on where a tumor is, this may be the only way to reach [it] successfully.”  

Nitish V. Thakor, a professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, told The Post: I can imagine a future where a full CAT scan is done of the lungs, and the surgeon sits down on a computer and lays out this navigation path of this kind of a snake robot and says: ‘Go get it.’ ”  He also sees potential for uses outside the lungs, such as in the heart.  

Similarly, Dr. Janani S. Reisenauer, a surgeon at The Mayo Clinic, declared to The Post: “If it’s a small, maneuverable autonomous system that can get out there and then do something when it’s out there, that would be revolutionary.” 

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Personally, I’m still holding out hope for nanoparticles, but these kinds of soft, flexible robots could be important until we get there.  Sure, maybe people will be reluctant to be told they have to ingest magnetic slime – much less a magnetic turd – or have a snakelike robot put down their throats, but it may beat having a scope inserted or being cut open.

The researchers can keep working on the robots; others of us can work on better names. 

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

I am Dr. Groot

By KIM BELLARD

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:

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Wait — Robots Work But I Get Paid

By KIM BELLARD

We’re not through the COVID-19 pandemic.  We’re probably not even near the end of the beginning yet.  That hasn’t stopped many pundits to start speculating about how our society (and our healthcare system) are likely to be permanently changed as a result, such as continued reliance on telecommuting and telemedicine.  

OK, I’ll play too: I believe we need to greatly expand the role of robots, and begin something that resembles Universal Basic Income (UBI).  They’re not the only changes that may result, but they are two that should.

Robots

We’ve been seeing robots infiltrating the workforce for many decades, such as in manufacturing but also in many other industries. 

Still, though, as our economy pares down to “essential businesses” during the pandemic, I’ve been alarmed at how many of the jobs remain done by humans.  Not just healthcare workers on the front lines but also all those people doing the cleaning for essential businesses, all those people in the supply chain of food and other vital materials, all those people making deliveries, all those first responders, all those people all those people keeping the power on, the water running, and the internet streaming, among others.  And so on.

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Robots Are Coming and They Plan to Treat You like a Moron

Robots are coming
People hate to hear it, but the robots are coming and it’s only a matter of time before they start competing for skilled, white collar jobs.

Nurses are vulnerable –but before you get excited and start attacking me– so, too are consultants and bloggers. So get used to it, and figure out how you’re going to co-exist with and leverage the bots.

One of my pet peeves about robots is when their programmers try to make them act human by intentionally making them imperfect or have them simulate (feign?) empathy.

For example, I can’t stand it when the voice recognition airline rep talks in a sympathetic sounding voice when “she” can’t understand what I’m saying.

But apparently we’ll be seeing more of these little “humanizing” tricks, thanks to research from MIT that concludes that people like this kind of stuff. From the Wall Street Journalwe learn:

  • People like their therapy robots to be baby-faced
  • We feel emotionally closer to robots that sound like our own gender
  • When robots mimic our activity (like folding their arms) we like it
  • And then there’s this one:

“One study showed that people rated online travel booking and dating services more positively when the service communicated clearly that it was working for the consumer (e.g., “We are now searching 100 sites for you”) than when they simply provided search results. Surprisingly, having to wait 30 seconds for results but also receiving this communication of effort slightly increased users’ satisfaction, compared with receiving results instantaneously. Being made aware of the website’s willingness to work on their behalf made people feel that the service was sympathetic to their needs.”

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