When I reached Professor Guang-Zhong Yang on the phone last week, he was cooped up in a hotel room in Shanghai, where he had self-isolated after returning from a trip abroad. I wanted to hear from Yang, a widely respected figure in the robotics community, about the role that robots are playing in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. He’d been monitoring the situation from his room over the previous week, and during that time his only visitors were a hotel employee, who took his temperature twice a day, and a small wheeled robot, which delivered his meals autonomously.
An IEEE Fellow and founding editor of the journal Science Robotics, Yang is the former director and co-founder of the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London. More recently, he became the founding dean of the Institute of Medical Robotics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, often called the MIT of China. Yang wants to build the new institute into a robotics powerhouse, recruiting 500 faculty members and graduate students over the next three years to explore areas like surgical and rehabilitation robots, image-guided systems, and precision mechatronics.
“I ran a lot of the operations for the institute from my hotel room using Zoom,” he told me.
Yang is impressed by the different robotic systems being deployed as part of the COVID-19 response. There are robots checking patients for fever, robots disinfecting hospitals, and robots delivering medicine and food. But he thinks robotics can do even more.
“Robots can be really useful to help you manage this kind of situation, whether to minimize human-to-human contact or as a front-line tool you can use to help contain the outbreak,” he says. While the robots currently being used rely on technologies that are mature enough to be deployed, he argues that roboticists should work more closely with medical experts to develop new types of robots for fighting infectious diseases.
“What I fear is that, there is really no sustained or coherent effort in developing these types of robots,” he says. “We need an orchestrated effort in the medical robotics community, and also the research community at large, to really look at this more seriously.”
Yang calls for a global effort to tackle the problem. “In terms of the way to move forward, I think we need to be more coordinated globally,” he says. “Because many of the challenges require that we work collectively to deal with them.”
Our full conversation, edited for clarity and length, is below.
IEEE Spectrum: How is the situation in Shanghai?
Guang-Zhong Yang: I came back to Shanghai about 10 days ago, via Hong Kong, so I’m now under self-imposed isolation in a hotel room just to be cautious, for two weeks. The general feeling in Shanghai is that it’s really calm and orderly. Everything seems well under control. And as you probably know, in recent days the number of new cases is steadily dropping. So the main priority for the government is to restore normal routines, and also for companies to go back to work. Of course, people are still very cautious, and there are systematic checks in place. In my hotel, for instance, I get checked twice a day for my temperature to make sure that all the people in the hotel are well.
Are most people staying inside, are the streets empty?
No, the streets are not empty. In fact, in Minhang, next to Shanghai Jiao Tong University, things are going back to normal. Not at full capacity, but stores and restaurants are gradually opening. And people are thinking about the essential travels they need to do, what they can do remotely. As you know in China we have very good online order and delivery services, so people use them a lot more. I was really impressed by how the whole thing got under control, really.
Has Shanghai Jiao Tong University switched to online classes?
Yes. Since last week, the students are attending online lectures. The university has 1449 courses for undergrads and 657 for graduate students. I participated in some of them. It’s really well run. You can have the typical format with a presenter teaching the class, but you can also have part of the lecture with the students divided into groups and having discussions. Of course what’s really affected is laboratory-based work. So we’ll need to wait for some more time to get back into action.
What do you think of the robots being used to help fight the outbreak?
I’ve seen reports showing a variety of robots being deployed. Disinfection robots that use UV light in hospitals. Drones being used for transporting samples. There’s a prototype robot, developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to remotely collect oropharyngeal swabs from patients for testing, so a medical worker doesn’t have to directly swab the patient. In my hotel, there’s a robot that brings my meals to my door. This little robot can manage to get into the lift, go to your room, and call you to open the door. I’m a roboticist myself and I find it striking how well this robot works every time! [Laughs.]
After Japan’s Fukushima nuclear emergency, the robotics community realized that it needed to be better prepared. It seems that we’ve made progress with disaster-response robots, but what about dealing with pandemics?
I think that for events involving infectious diseases, like this coronavirus outbreak, when they happen, everybody realizes the importance of robots. The challenge is that at most research institutions, people are more concerned with specific research topics, and that’s indeed the work of a scientist—to dig deep into the scientific issues and solve those specific problems. But we also need to have a global view to deal with big challenges like this pandemic.
So I think what we need to do, starting now, is to have a more systematic effort to make sure those robots can be deployed when we need them. We just need to recompose ourselves and work to identify the technologies that are ready to be deployed, and what are the key directions we need to pursue. There’s a lot we can do. It’s not too late. Because this is not going to disappear. We have to see the worst before it gets better.
So what should we do to be better prepared?
After a major crisis, when everything is under control, people’s priority is to go back to our normal routines. The last thing in people’s minds is, What should we do to prepare for the next crisis? And the thing is, you can’t predict when the next crisis will happen. So I think we need three levels of action, and it really has to be a global effort. One is at the government level, in particular funding agencies: How to make sure we can plan ahead and to prepare for the worst.
Another level is the robotics community, including organizations like the IEEE, we need leadership to advocate for these issues and promote activities like robotics challenges. We see challenges for disasters, logistics, drones—how about a robotic challenge for infectious diseases. I was surprised, and a bit disappointed in myself, that we didn’t think about this before. So for the editorial board of Science Robotics, for instance, this will become an important topic for us to rethink.
And the third level is our interaction with front-line clinicians—our interaction with them needs to be stronger. We need to understand the requirements and not be obsessed with pure technologies, so we can ensure that our systems are effective, safe, and can be rapidly deployed. I think that if we can mobilize and coordinate our effort at all these three levels, that would be transformative. And we’ll be better prepared for the next crisis.
Are there projects taking place at the Institute of Medical Robotics that could help with this pandemic?
The institute has been in full operation for just over a year now. We have three main areas of research: The first is surgical robotics, which is my main area of research. The second area is in rehabilitation and assistive robots. The third area is hospital and laboratory automation. One important lesson that we learned from the coronavirus is that, if we can detect and intervene early, we have a better chance of containing it. And for other diseases, it’s the same. For cancer, early detection based on imaging and other sensing technologies, is critical. So that’s something we want to explore—how robotics, including technologies like laboratory automation, can help with early detection and intervention.
One area we are working on is automated intensive-care unit wards. The idea is to build negative-pressure ICU wards for infectious diseases equipped with robotic capabilities that can take care of certain critical care tasks. Some tasks could be performed remotely by medical personnel, while other tasks could be fully automated. A lot of the technologies that we already use in surgical robotics can be translated into this area. We’re hoping to work with other institutions and share our expertise to continue developing this further. Indeed, this technology is not just for emergency situations. It will also be useful for routine management of infectious disease patients. We really need to rethink how hospitals are organized in the future to avoid unnecessary exposure and cross-infection.
I’ve seen some recent headlines—“China’s tech fights back,” “Coronavirus is the first big test for futuristic tech”—many people expect technology to save the day.
When there’s a major crisis like this pandemic, in the general public’s mind, people want to find a magic cure that will solve all the problems. I completely understand that expectation. But technology can’t always do that, of course. What technology can do is to help us to be better prepared. For example, it’s clear that in the last few years self-navigating robots with localization and mapping are becoming a mature technology, so we should see more of those used for situations like this. I’d also like to see more technologies developed for front-line management of patients, like the robotic ICU I mentioned earlier. Another area is public transportation systems—can they have an element of disease prevention, using technology to minimize the spread of diseases so that lockdowns are only imposed as a last resort?
And then there’s the problem of people being isolated. You probably saw that Italy has imposed a total lockdown. That could have a major psychological impact, particularly for people who are vulnerable and living alone. There is one area of robotics, called social robotics, that could play a part in this as well. I’ve been in this hotel room by myself for days now—I’m really starting to feel the isolation…
We should have done a Zoom call.
Yes, we should. [Laughs.] I guess this isolation, or quarantine for various people, also provides the opportunity for us to reflect on our lives, our work, our daily routines. That’s the silver lining that we may see from this crisis.
While some people say we need more technology during emergencies like this, others worry that companies and governments will use things like cameras and facial recognition to increase surveillance of individuals.
A while ago we published an article listing the 10 grand challenges for robotics in Science Robotics. One of the grand challenges is concerned with legal and ethical issues, which include what you mentioned in your question. Respecting privacy, and also being sensitive about individual and citizens’ rights—these are very, very important. Because we must operate within this legal ethical boundary. We should not use technologies that will intrude in people’s lives. You mentioned that some people say that we don’t have enough technology, and that others say we have too much. And I think both have a point. What we need to do is to develop technologies that are appropriate to be deployed in the right situation and for the right tasks.
Many researchers seem eager to help. What would you say to roboticists interested in helping fight this outbreak or prepare for the next one?
For medical robotics research, my experience is that for your technology to be effective, it has to be application oriented. You need to ensure that end-users like the clinicians who will use your robot, or in the case of assistive robots, the patients, that they are deeply involved in the development of the technology. And the second thing is really to think out of the box—how to develop radically different new technologies. Because robotics research is very hands on and there’s a tendency of adapting what’s readily available out there. For your technology to have a major impact, you need to fundamentally rethink your research and innovation, not just follow the waves.
For example, at our institute we’re investing a lot of effort on the development of micro and nano systems and also new materials that could one day be used in robots. Because for micro robotic systems, we can’t rely on the more traditional approach of using motors and gears that we use in larger systems. So my suggestion is to work on technologies that not only have a deep science element but can also become part of a real-world application. Only then we can be sure to have strong technologies to deal with future crises.