Doctor Who? Medicine's New Steely Helpers

Doctor Who? Medicine's New Steely Helpers

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


R2-D2 may soon diagnose your cancer, bear your dying secrets and dance for you all at once. 

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Cold and shiny, they zip and zoom on the slick linoleum floors of Changi General Hospital, located deep in Singaporean suburbia. When I get in the way, they let me know. “Please let me through,” requests a 375-pound robot with bright eyes and a Splenda-sweet smile. I freeze. “That wasn’t a question,” a nearby nurse whispers. The steely migrant is on a mission to deliver lab specimens to another ward. 

Changi General CEO Lee Chien Earn likes to call his hospital the “living lab,” a sort of incubator for medical helper bots, which, he says, will soon be “the future of hospitals everywhere.” Soon, meaning just a few years from now. The global medical robotics market is predicted to reach $7.6 billion by 2020, up from $2.7 billion in 2014, according to the India-based research firm IndustryARC. Some of these technologies first appeared more than a decade ago, but there wasn’t much interest. This time around, though, the equipment is more advanced and administrators are under pressure to cut costs. Lee wouldn’t disclose how much the hospital spent on its four artificial workers, but he says the investment will pay for itself in five years and that since arriving in February they’ve boosted productivity by 30 percent. Nurses say that has allowed them to focus on more meaningful tasks, but the robots have taken some getting used to. “They’re kind of like big cockroaches,” says Assistant Director Tenny Chow, referring to the way they slowly creep through the halls.

Others are experimenting with outsourcing the more personal aspects of the job. And this is where it gets weird.

Dystopian cyborg takeovers aside, the prospect is a bit unnerving. In this high-tech Asian hub, robots are going beyond the menial tasks we once assumed they would do, like sorting pills, and into more intimate realms of patient care, spaces where we once expected not just physical exams but emotional empathy. Mark Stephen Meadows, who speaks internationally about ethics in artificial intelligence and is president of, a San Francisco company that develops characters for social robots, says it raises a paradox that threatens the roles of families and caretakers in society: “It may be that avatars and robots can take better care of Grandma than I can.”

The prospect seems far-fetched now, especially considering how slow personalized medicine and patient technology have been to catch on in the States, but Meadows agrees that it’s not long before robots outnumber nurses. Until now, the gold standard in this field has been the Da Vinci Surgical System, which allows surgeons to insert a 3-D camera into a patient (via a small incision) that’s connected to a miniature instrument that can be manuevered from outside the body. But even that relies on humans to control the movement in real time. The machines Lee and Meadows speak of are voice-controlled androids that perform gynecological surgeries, automated delivery drones that can navigate the ICU, beds that convert Transformer-style to wheelchairs, computerized assistants that can sort out surgical instruments in the operating room and exoskeletons that do physical therapy with trauma patients. Singaporean hospitals are even rolling out a dancing “Gangnam Style” character to entertain patients.

Others are experimenting with outsourcing the more personal aspects of the job. And this is where it gets weird. In the United States, the robot Sophie diagnosis patients. Meanwhile, BlabDroid provides an ear for the dying to share their last words. It’s meant to be like a “confessional booth,” says Norrie Daroga, CEO of Wisconsin-based iDAvatars, which builds conversational bots. So these grinning mechanical zombies aren’t just going to be moving things anymore; we’ll be trusting them with our terminal loved ones and sniffling babies, Daroga says. 

Health-care equipment experts like Dr. Yulun Wang, CEO of InTouch Health, which pioneered the first FDA-approved surgical robot, warn that these icy hunks of metal will create new liability issues, especially since technology has outpaced the law. If a computer delivers a misdiagnosis, who is to blame? The engineer? The manufacturer? The hospital? Wang argues that instead of being autonomous, medical robots should be seen as a tool for physicians. Even Lee, whose hospital is pioneering the robotic technology in Singapore, doesn’t think droids can replace the “human touch.” Indeed, assistive robotic technology’s greatest potential is that it will free up health-care professionals to spend more one-on-one time with patients. A robot should never tell patients they have cancer, Lee says. “If it comes to that day, it will be very cold.” And although Lee claims no workers have been laid off since the uptick in productivity, that is likely an inevitable consequence if cost-saving is a goal. 

On my way out of the hospital, my bossy robot friend joins me in the elevator. After a brief hello, the doors open and she zips away to deliver patient records to a doctor in the oncology clinic. Right at that moment, another high-tech laborer delivering hundreds of pounds of food to the cafeteria speeds by. The living lab is a well-oiled machine.