Robots in Hospital

March 18th, 2012

Kenneth Anderson links to a WSJ piece about the use of “service robots” in the health care field.

But the stage is now set for a different kind of robots, one with a sophisticated brain and an unlimited tolerance for menial tasks.

In the next few years, thousands of “service robots” are expected to enter the health-care sector—picture R2D2 from “Star Wars” carrying a tray of medications or a load of laundry down hospital corridors.

Fewer than 1,000 of these blue-collar robots currently roam about hospitals, but those numbers are expected to grow quickly.

As America’s elderly population grows, the country’s health-care system is facing cost pressures and a shortage of doctors and nurses. Many administrators are hoping to foist some of the less glamorous work onto robots.

This could create a potential bonanza for software and application developers to write new programs for them, investors and industry watchers say.

These blue collar robots will no doubt take jobs away from humans, but will not face the types of occupational licensing law white collar robots will face. Ryan Calo’s article, Open Robotics, is on point.

Update: Amazon just purchased Kiva Systems–a maker of robots that service warehouses–for $775 million. is buying an army of robots.

The online retailer announced on Monday that it is acquiring Kiva Systems, a maker of robots that service warehouses, for $775 million in cash. Amazon, a  customer of Kiva’s, is buying the robotics company as it builds out its vast network of warehouses and tries to improve its margins.

“Amazon has long used automation in its fulfillment centers, and Kiva’s technology is another way to improve productivity by bringing the products directly to employees to pick, pack and stow,” Dave Clark,’s vice president of global customer fulfillment said in a statement. “Kiva shares our passion for invention.”

Kiva, based in North Reading, Mass., builds robots to help retailers manage their inventory and fulfill orders. Founded in 2003 by its chief executive, Mick Mountz — a former employee of Webvan, the once high-flying delivery service that folded after the dot-com bust — Kiva services many large retailers, like Gap, Staples and Saks. Its investors include Bain Capital Ventures, the venture capital arm of Bain Capital, and Meakem BeckerVenture Capital.

“I’m delighted that Amazon is supporting our growth so that we can provide even more valuable solutions in the coming years,” Mr. Mountz said in a statement.

“Amazon has not had great margins,” Jason Helfstein, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Company. “One has to believe they looked at this and thought, ‘Why not just own it and take all the technology in house?’”

Soon the Kindle 1000 will come back from the future to save John Connor….

Update 2: Nick Bilton has a piece at Bits about how Amazon’s purchase of Kiva will lead to robots replacing humans:

 Instead, Kiva Systems’ orange robots are designed to move around warehouses and stock shelves.

Or, as the company says on its Web site, using “hundreds of autonomous mobile robots,” Kiva Systems “enables extremely fast cycle times with reduced labor requirements.”

In other words, these robots will most likely replace human workers in Amazon’s warehouses.

Is this one more step, a quickening step, toward the day when robots put many of us out of work? Most roboticists don’t see the coming robot invasion that way.

Michael Kutzer and Christopher Brown, robotics research engineers with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, explained that current robots are being designed to work alongside people, not replace them, in the work force. . . .

Robots have been in factories for decades. But increasingly we will see them out in the open. Already little ones — toys, really — sweep floors. But they are getting better at doing what we do. Soon, if Google’s efforts to create driverless cars are successful, cab drivers, cross-country truckers and even ambulance drivers could be out of a job, replaced by a computer in the driver’s seat.

Yet those who are paving the way to a world with robots don’t see it that way. “Those who lose jobs to robots will have an incentive to acquire skills that are currently beyond the skills of robots — and there are many human skills that will not be surpassed soon by robots,” explained Colin Allen, co-author of the book “Moral Machines” and a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University.

These experts believe that jobs in creative fields, including musicians, writers and artists, will never be replaced by robots. No matter how smart robots are, they will also never be better than humans at physics or psychology.