Societies all around the globe have been struck by SARS-CoV-2. Next to the rapid spreading of the virus and the escalating curves of infection and death, we have witnessed a peculiar development: robots have come to the front line of the Corona pandemic. Reports of increased usage of robots caring for patients in hospitals or disinfecting public spaces abound. For example, the Circolo Hospital in Varese, a region where the virus has struck particularly hard, has acquired six child-size ‘Tommy’ robots, which monitor patients’ parameters while doctors and nurses take care of people with more severe symptoms. We have heard similar stories from China. Dubbed the ‘smart field hospital’, a robot-staffed facility opened in Wuhan, where the pandemic began. There, robots take care of those infected by bringing them medicine and food. Furthermore, robots are used as remote-controlled disinfectors as reports show from China, Italy, Hong Kong, and Denmark.

What happened? What caused this surge of robots in places around the globe? Has technology suddenly come to the point of being able to rescue humanity? Well, partly, yes, but the full answer to these questions is more complex, as it has more to do with how society has changed since the breakout of the virus. To be more precise, what changed is what we have come to expect from interactions with others, including robots.

Before we can answer those questions, we have to understand a few things about the current state of robotics and, in particular, human-robot interaction. It cannot be overstated how difficult it still is to make robots interact with humans. If you follow roboticists in their labs, it is shocking how far off these machines are from effectively and sustainably interacting not just with people but with perfectly orderly environments like a home or hospital. Seemingly simple tasks like picking-up and delivering glass to a person is an extremely hard thing for a robot to do. For a long time, robots have been restricted to extremely controlled enclosures like nuclear plants, factories and, more recently, warehouses. Those environments were extremely stable and secluded from humans. Things were not meant to change while robots were operating and, if they did, it often meant the robots’ work had to stop immediately. Now, however, we expect robots to interface ever more intimately with people and their ‘seemingly orderly’ enclosures. What we usually expect from the interaction with people denotes a complexity still largely unattainable for robots today.

So what changed? How can it be that robots are so successful in the context of the Corona crisis? While robot technology has evolved tremendously in the past two decades, human-robot interaction is still an enormous challenge. So, it cannot be technology alone that explains this shift in appreciation for robots. In our view, it has much more to do with the changing social conditions due to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. If we zoom into the Tommy robots case in Northern Italy, we get a glimpse of an answer. In Varese, Francesco Dentali, Director of the Intensive Care Unit at the Circolo Hospital praised the robots for being not prone to “problems related to infection”.  Robots help to distance patients from nurses and doctors, i.e. those contagious and those who need to stay healthy in order to help others. Using the interface of the robots, “medical staff can be in touch with the patients without direct contact”. Hearing a doctor praise a robot for intercepting direct contact between him, his staff and patients are surprising. It breaks with what for decades has been the main counterargument against robots in healthcare: they strip care from intimate human contact critical in health, specifically elderly care. Only a year ago, one of our contacts, a French geriatrician, whom we interviewed during the SCALINGS field phase, was completely shocked by the expansive spending European Commission puts into robots in healthcare. For him, the interaction between patients and robots should not be a playing ground for robotics engineers: “I studied in medical class to interact with patients. If I were interested in robot interaction, I would have gone to an engineering school. It’s not a good idea to put a robot between the patient and the doctor.” (interview transcript).  

The virus seems to have changed this sentiment completely. In times of social distancing, infection trajectories, and exponential epidemiological graphs, healthcare looks to follow a different social order. Here, the most important thing is to prevent interaction and keep the chance of the virus spreading from one body to the next to a minimum. This means people will overlook even the clunkiest of interaction with a robot if it enables the care to keep them alive or allow contact with relatives (the many people who spend most of their workday in teleconferences can probably relate to this). Human-robot interaction needs a resource, which we seem to have in abundance nowadays: time. What does it matter for patients if it takes ten minutes more to tell a robot about their health or to put the information in themselves when all you do the whole day is wait and try to get better. For a moment, it appears the Coronavirus has taken away the obsession with speed in healthcare. And, it is truly ironic that technology that has long been hailed for bringing efficiency and cost-effectiveness to care is having its moment because time is no longer the most valuable resource.

The efficiency and cost-effective paradigm that used to frame healthcare systems across Europe has also been affected by Covid-19. Indeed, this emergency situation has had another effect on the healthcare world: a sudden increase in budget. In France, healthcare practitioners have been on strike for almost a year asking for budget extensions in order to survive the day-to-day. When SARS-CoV-2 spread across French territory, the government quickly voted on a two billion extension budget on 18 March. A month later, the prime minister decided to multiply this budget by four. This money has been mainly used for ongoing wages, fixed charges and bonuses of healthcare workers, but some of it has been used to buy robots. At the “Pitié Salpêtrière” Hospital in Paris, four Pepper robots popped up inpatient rooms, allowing patients to communicate with their families.

Why are robots so successful in times of Covid-19? We would say that, for the most part, it is due to a fundamentally changed society which, under the impact of a worldwide pandemic, has come to accept a different regime of interacting with people and, incidentally, with robots. In times of social distancing, it becomes acceptable to interact at a distance, remotely, mediated through means of digital communication. Robots have long been criticised for alienating human interaction in care. Now it is precisely this quality, ‘robotic distancing’, that makes them suitable within the context of the Covid crisis. Furthermore, robots benefit extremely from a newly loosened budgetary regime particularly visible in France.

What lessons can we draw from this? Technologies like robotics or artificial intelligence often come with narratives that stage them as autonomous beings that come from nowhere, which will fundamentally transform society to its core. The case of Covid-19 shows the advent of interactive robots is a much more complex story. Robots do not come from nowhere, and they need a robot-friendly, social environment to work properly. In the examples described above, it becomes clear that the changed social logic under the Corona crisis has created such a robot-friendly environment. Robots have attained momentum not just because of a new algorithm or system architecture but precisely because the social, political, and medical priorities have shifted in the robots’ favour. We should remember this story after the Covid crisis when narratives of the ‘robot revolution’ return.

Benjamin Lipp
Postdoc at TU Munich doing research on care robotics and innovation policy from an STS perspective
Mathieu Baudrin
Postdoc at ARMINES/MINES Paris Tech doing research on autonomous driving and robotics from an STS perspective