Robots could be trained to disinfect surfaces, take temperatures, collecting swabs and provide social support for quarantined patients to help combat coronavirus.
The ‘dull, dirty and dangerous jobs’ could be automated, but we would need to add many new functionalities to machines first, roboticists argued in a journal editorial.
Many of these necessary capabilities, however, are neither being funded or developed at present, the experts cautioned.
Among the signatories of the editorial are roboticist Howie Choset of the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the president of the National Academy of Science, Marcia McNutt.
‘The experiences with the (2015) Ebola outbreak identified a broad spectrum of use cases [for robots],’ the team wrote.
Many of these applications would serve to help reduce the risk of humans being directly exposed to disease.
‘But funding for multidisciplinary research in partnership with agencies and industry to meet these use cases remains expensive, rare and directed to other applications.’
‘Without a sustainable approach to research, history will repeat itself, and robots will not be ready for the next incident.’
According to Professor Choset, the authors did not intend to argue exactly how robots might be used in the event of a pandemic.
‘Rather, we hope to inspire others in the community to conceive of solutions to what is a very complicated problem,’ he explained.
In addition, Professor Choset added, artificial intelligence might similarly be applied to assist in future responses to large-scale disease outbreaks.
At Professor Choset’s home institution of Carnegie Mellon, for example, researchers are exploring how AI-powered drones might play a role in providing humanitarian aid and helping respond to disasters.
The full text of the editorial was published in the journal Science Robotics.