Since we’re apparently in the middle of the apocalypse now we should probably be keeping an eye on all of the potential disasters awaiting us in the dystopian future we’re currently entering. One of these concerns is the inevitable robot revolution that will arrive when the fancy AI programs they’re working on to track virus mutations wake up and determine that humans are probably too frail and stupid to bother saving. Some worrying signs are already showing up in the midst of the pandemic, with some automation specialists suggesting that robots could soon replace medical professionals in handling the coronavirus caseload. (Daily Mail)

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.

There’s a pleasant thought for you. You show up at the local walk-in clinic, fearing that you may have come down with COVID-19 and you’re greeted at the check-in window by a robot asking to scan your ID and have you give a brief description of your medical complaint. After being summoned to an examination room, a robotic arm takes your temperature with a scanner and pumps up a blood pressure cuff you put on your arm. It then attempts to stick a cotton swab in your mouth for a testing sample.

Even more alarming is the line in the journal editorial where they suggest that robots could “provide social support for quarantined patients.” So now we’re going to have robots with a “bedside manner” to offer comfort and cheer you up while you’re quarantined? I thought the Japanese sex robots were creepy enough, but this would probably stop me from going to the hospital to seek treatment.

In all seriousness, this isn’t some fringe discussion that’s taking place among a group of geeks. The Associated Press reports that just this week the academic journal Science Robotics published an editorial calling for new and sustained development of new robotics and AI to deal with a medical crisis.

Where are the robots that can disinfect hospitals and supermarkets, swab patients and provide relief to medical workers and others overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic?

There aren’t any, or, at least, not enough of them, according to engineers and computer scientists calling for more sustained funding for building machines that can perform important tasks during an infectious disease outbreak…

A similar call came from the White House six years ago looking for robots that could help fight the Ebola outbreak. But as global concern over Ebola subsided, so too did funding and motivation to develop new machines.

So Obama was calling for a new generation of robots to work in the medical field back when we were dealing with the Ebola outbreak, but the effort didn’t really go anywhere. Perhaps this pandemic will accelerate the process, particularly since we’ve had an additional six years for the technology to advance further. But do we really want that? I suppose robots might be able to disinfect public spaces well enough… maybe. But taking people’s temperatures and swabbing the inside of their cheeks to conduct tests still sounds like something needing a set of human hands.

And, as I mentioned above, in only a half-kidding fashion, you’d be taking people who are at their most vulnerable and weakened point and placing them in the hands of a robot. That’s not a good combination if something goes drastically wrong with the machine and it suddenly goes all SKYNET on you.