The Big Friendly Robot

Robots have fallen short during Covid-19 and science fiction predicted it

Robots are playing an important role in this global pandemic.

Humans have a lot of feelings about robots. When they're too powerful, smart, or fast, we fear that they may overpower us. But, when we're at our most vulnerable and scared, we expect our creations to rise to the challenge and save us.

So, where have our life-saving robots been during Covid-19?

In an essay published this month in the journal Science, Texas A&M professor of computer science and director of the Humanitarian Robotics and AI Laboratory, Robin Murphy, explores why robots have not appeared more frequently as the saviors of the sick in science fiction epidemics and what that means for their role as our saviors during the world's first pandem ic in decades.

When it comes down to it, Murphy says it simply might not be the more interesting story.

"It's not particularly compelling to have the robot save the day."

"I think one of the points that we see in science fiction is that all the pandemic stories have been character-driven," Murphy tells Inverse. "It's about the heroic medical people or heroic individual that comes to save the day. It's not particularly compelling to have the robot save the day."

But, just because these robots may not be the healthcare heroes of science fiction, that doesn't mean they're not doing their part, Murphy writes.

In fact, robots as medical aids go as far back as the early 1900s and were first explored in the 1909 short story "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forster. Instead of administering medical care, this robot was used as advanced telemedicine tool by a human doctor, allowing them to remotely examine a patient using a robot built into her home. Science fiction stories of the 1920s would also toy around with replacing nurses with "psychophonic" robots as well.

In the film 1971 adaptation of Crichton's Andromeda Strain, robots were used to dispose of contaminated materials while humans managed peoples' medical care.

Michael Ochs Archives/Moviepix/Getty Images

While these robots were handling relatively simple ailments, in 1960 Michael Crichton -- the author behind Jurassic Park and the original source material for the HBO show Westworld -- wrote about the first pandemic robots in his novel The Andromeda Strain. This time, instead of developing vaccines or operating on patients, the robots were instead used to handle and dispose of contaminated material. And in the book's authorized sequel The Andromeda Evolution, written in 2019 by Daniel Wilson, robots made an appearance as teleoperated drones to scout ahead of scientists to detect disease spread.

Drones serve a similar purpose in the 2018 Theodore Sturgeon award-winning short story “When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis," by Annalee Newitz. In this case, the drones detect an emerging outbreak at a tenement just in time to prevent an epidemic.

These important, though perhaps not world-shaking, uses of robots in science fiction echo a similar underwhelming use during Covid-19, as described in another Science essay "Combating Covid-19—The role of robotics in managing public health and infectious diseases." The essay describes how similar drones have been used in China to monitor the spread of disease and how delivery drones can be used to transport important medical supplies.

Disinfecting robots, similar to those described by Crichton, have also become a staple of Covid-19, along with robots designed to measure patrons' temperatures.

During Covid-19 medical drones have been used to help deliver medical supplies as well as monitor the spread of infection


In both fiction and reality, these roles are incredibly important, albeit, a little mundane. Yet, do we still wish our robots were doing more?

Part of the problem is that we're simply not at a place in robotics where it's possible to automate much of the more important aspects of medical care. Robots may be able to help doctors perform certain pre-programmed surgeries, but they're far from ready to take over these critical roles.

And when it comes to writing compelling science fiction, Murphy tells Inverse, that robots coming to our rescue in a pandemic simply wouldn't be a compelling story. Science fiction is designed to explore the future implications of our technology, but more importantly, it's designed to turn a mirror on our own actions and societies.

"The background uses can be some of the most profound."

Instead of looking for science fiction to give us the key to vaccine development or robot doctors, we might look to see what we can learn about our own inequality from these stories and how we can create systems that allow us to be our own heroes -- instead of waiting for our robots to save us instead.

"Personally, I find it wonderful to see in real-life that robots are being used in every facet of work [and] life," Murphy tells Inverse. "I think that's one of the lessons from science fiction; that the background uses [of robots] can be some of the most profound. The things you take for granted are perhaps the things that can make the most difference. "

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