Jul 30, 2020

Robots are getting personal during the pandemic

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COVID-19 is limiting human contact, but bots are stepping in to fill the void by cleaning, making deliveries, even providing companionship.

This week on “Marketplace Tech,” we’re reporting on the innovations that will help us transition to a post-pandemic future. One of those innovations has been waiting in the wings for a long time: robots.

Robots can do jobs that are too dangerous for humans or just make life a little easier and offer some companionship during quarantine. I spoke with Ayanna Howard, a roboticist and professor at Georgia Tech. She said the pandemic has been a boost for robotics of all types. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Ayanna Howard (Courtesy Georgia Tech)

Howard: One of the things, if you think about human and people’s relationship to robotics, it’s been kind of a love-hate relationship. Most people, they might buy a Roomba [vacuum], for example, but a lot are like, “No, I’m not doing that. Robots? Please, no.” But what we’ve seen now is there’s this adoption of robots in the home, in the workplace, in the hospitals and clinics, because it fulfills a need that cannot be filled by people anymore.

Molly Wood: It seems like there are lots of different aspects to this. And some of it is maybe someone can’t have their cleaning lady come and they just need help, because we’re cooking at home all the time, making a bigger mess. But there’s also robots in the context of medicine and companionship. Talk a little bit about these various roles that we’re seeing become more necessary.

Howard: I would categorize them in two buckets. There’s the set of robots that are being used for addressing issues with a pandemic — robots that are being used in the hospitals and in stores to clean and disinfect. That’s a needed attribute that robots are able to fill. But then there’s also the robots for the home environment that provide us a little bit of the social interaction, and it’s because there are robots, and we design them, that … understand humans, so they can be emotional, they can be reactive. And because we are not able to interact with those outside of our home as much, the robot is a replacement. It’s not the best replacement, but it gives us a little bit of humanity that we can touch with and interact with. There’s an increase in these types of devices and development and products.

Wood: As you look ahead at the next, say, six to 18 months, what do you think is going to happen in this field? How fast are companies going to move and pivot and adopt?

Howard: I would say exponentially, except exponential is based on what the first number is, but I would say exponentially with all the caveats that go with that. And it’s only because we still need to live, we still need to function, we still have human needs and human desires, and we still want to go in to work when we can. And how do you do that safely, given that we can’t physically do a lot of these things? Robots and [artificial intelligence] fills that space, so that, at least in the near future, which is at least a year based on all the reports, means it’s going to accelerate. And then once we’re on the other side of COVID-19, we would have become accustomed to adoption, we would become accustomed to robots and AI, and I think it’ll become the new norm.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Industrial robotics are already on the rise in the pandemic. Teradyne, which makes robots designed to work alongside humans, and the Swiss company ABB, which sells robotic arms and automation technology, both reported big second quarter earnings earlier this month. There’s more reading on those earnings reports and how changing trends in manufacturing, namely reshoring, or bringing supply chains back to the United States from overseas, is driving demand for automation and factory and warehouse robots. 

There’s also a Forbes story about the increase in demand for contactless delivery robots — the little boxes that drive around cities and deliver takeout. USA Today has a piece about service robots that are being used in some Hilton and Marriott hotels in California to deliver fresh towels, extra pillows and things like groceries or wine. 

And a Verge article from early July talks about how robots have become a mainstay in hospitals since the pandemic began to do ultraviolet cleaning on the go. These robots are also being used in airports, stores and hotels. The robotics firm Xenex told The Verge that sales of its UV cleaning robots are up 600% over 2019. Robots are also bringing food and medicine to isolated patients, acting as receptionists in some hospitals and zipping around with test samples. And many doctors are finding that they want the bots to stay. 

I, for one, bought myself a Roomba in May and I’m never vacuuming by myself again. It may be dystopian, but it is really convenient.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer