No one was sure what was happening inside the apartment in Oceanside, CA. With dozens of police officers, SWAT team members, and EMTs assembled at the chaotic scene, the suspect had suddenly gone silent.
Earlier in the day, the man inside had terrorized his girlfriend by putting a gun in her mouth and promising to kill her. When she escaped, the suspect, who’d been drinking, began threatening suicide. Police evacuated the densely populated apartment complex while police negotiators tried in vain to convince the man to surrender. If any cop dared to enter his apartment, the suspect warned, “It would be bad.”
After a while, the suspect stopped communicating. No one could be sure whether he was already dead or if he was just quietly waiting to ambush the police who had assembled. A quick decision had to be made, but how could police safely end the standoff without putting the lives officers at risk? They opted for a solution they’d never tried before: surveying the scene inside the apartment using a tactical robot.
The Carlsbad Police Department, which had only recently purchased a RoboteX Avatar Tactical Robot, one of several robots being used in law enforcement worldwide to manage crises ranging from hostage situations to hazmat assessments, received a call and responded to the scene. This would mark the Avatar’s first mission.
Send in the Robots
“Firsts,” at least as they relate to automation, haven’t always been good news for some workers. With new robotics, automation, or AI being employed seemingly every day, the fear felt by workers in some industries is real.
In January, McKinsey researchers reported that 49 percent of time spent on work activities could be automated with “currently demonstrated technology” that is either already available or that is being developed in labs. According to the report, those numbers translate into $15.8 trillion in wages and the equivalent of 1.1 billion workers worldwide.
It sounds grim but the report also concluded that only 5 percent of jobs can be entirely automated, and that in order to realize automation’s full potential, people and technology must work hand in hand.
And that’s exactly how Carlsbad PD Lieutenant and SWAT Team Commander Chris Boyd sees the use of the Avatar: as a partnership between law enforcement and technology, one that allows police officers to do their jobs with less risk.
“When we use the robots, the worst case scenario is that we lose the robot and have to buy another one. It’s a much safer option than sending in an officer who could get shot.” – Carlsbad PD Lieutenant and SWAT Team Commander Chris Boyd
“Using the Avatar has added to a sense of safety and security for the team. Before we had the Avatar, we would have to make a choice to put members of our team in harm’s way. If you don’t have situational awareness from a safe vantage point, officers have to enter a structure – often the residence of an armed suspect – [to assess the threat],” he said. “When we use the robots, the worst case scenario is that we lose the robot and have to buy another one. It’s a much safer option than sending in an officer who could get shot.”
Far from eliminating workers, these partnerships between humans and machines are instead improving work lives by decreasing wear and tear on the human body, adding precision, and even reducing the danger associated with certain job functions. In some cases, human/robots partnerships are creating peace of mind and even extending careers.
In the case of the standoff in Oceanside, police knocked down the apartment’s front door and sent in the Avatar robot, which broadcasts both audio and video back to its handler, to survey the scene. Though police knew that the suspect was armed, the robot handler could see on his console that the suspect was lying on the couch with two handguns nearby. Using the robot’s two-way communication capabilities, the handler – who was standing safely outside the apartment – began speaking to the suspect. When he didn’t respond, the robot began nudging the suspect. When there was no response, the handler drove the robot right up onto the sofa, waking the suspect.
“This is the SWAT team. We have you surrounded. Come out now,” the robot handler said through the two-way radio. Surprised, the suspect complied and surrendered with his hands up to the police outside, according to Boyd.
“From an efficiency standpoint, barricade situations like [the one in Oceanside] could have gone on for 8+ hours before using the Avatar. Now, they are usually resolved peacefully within about 3 hours, so we are saving roughly 5 hours per call out,” Boyd said. “When you consider that for these types of calls we can have up to 20 personnel on the scene, it’s been a great savings.”
Time is More than Money
Like in law enforcement, the use of robots has changed the work life of surgeons and surgical physician’s assistants rather dramatically, namely by improving surgical precision and eliminating the fatigue that comes from standing and performing surgery for hours on end.
“With robotic surgery, we’ve gained the ability to hold instruments completely steady and lost the tremor and fatigue that comes when [the human hand] holds instruments for hours and hours and hours,” said Prachee Pathak, a robotic physician’s assistant and the Administrative Director of Robotic Surgery at White Plains Hospital. “Unlike people, the robot does not tire.”
For Pathak, the use of robots in the workplace has changed her outlook on surgery forever. After training as a surgical physician’s assistant at Cornell University, Pathak went to work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City where she was tapped to become the hospital’s first dedicated robotic surgery physician’s assistant. She has worked exclusively in robotic surgery ever since.
In traditional surgery, a surgeon, an anesthesiologist, and at least one assistant stand around a patient on the operating table. Robotic surgery works differently, using three principal components. The first is a multi-armed surgical robot that holds the instruments required for the surgery in its “hands.” The second is a vision cart, a console that is set about 6 feet from the patient and behind which the surgeon sits. The vision cart contains controls for the robotic arms and a screen that provides 3D imaging of the procedure. The controls translate the movements of the surgeon’s hand, wrist, and finger into precise, real-time movements of the surgical instruments the robot is holding. If the surgeon’s head moves out of the console, which would indicate that they are not watching the screen, the robot freezes.
Finally, there is a bedside assistant – or a robotic surgery physician’s assistant like Pathak – who works close to both the patient and the robot, changing out instruments and robotic arms as needed throughout the procedure.
“Most of us who work in robotics think that it’s an amazing, cutting-edge technology, [but] almost no one I have spoken to thinks that this is going to take over.” – Prachee Pathak
Using robots in the operating room saves time and resources post-surgery, as well, since robotic surgery patients typically recover faster than those who opt for traditional surgery. Pathak uses the example of head and neck cancer surgeries, which before robots often required splitting a patient’s jaw open to access the tongue or other areas of the head and neck. The recovery time was long and painful, and patients often required a feeding tube for months. Most required speech therapy afterward to correct associated speech problems.
The precision of robotic surgery has changed that, Pathak said, with most patients experiencing less blood loss, no feeding tube, and little to no speech therapy afterward. Some, she said, have even been able to forgo painkillers after surgery.
For surgeons, there is speculation that careers could be extended thanks to the improved ergonomics of using the surgical robot. Hand strain is reduced thanks to the use of the controls, and the ability to sit down at a console during long surgeries reduces strain on the musculoskeletal system. Injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome and other physical ailments have also been reduced.
Experts predict that within five years one in three U.S. surgeries – more than double current levels – is expected to be performed with robotic systems. This is good news for Pathak, who can’t see ever going back to traditional surgery.
“This is the future for me and there is no going back,” she said.
While she says she is often asked if she worries robots will one day usurp her job, Pathak is confident that the role of humans in medicine will always be valuable. In the operating room, she said, people are constantly making judgment calls and troubleshooting in ways that machines don’t have the ability to do. Even though each surgery has set steps, she said, variations in human anatomy and unexpected discoveries during surgery make sapient humans a necessary element of the process. But more, despite all of the advances in technology, machines still do not have the capacity for compassion.
“The most rewarding part of my life is seeing patients,” she said. “A robot won’t help them to talk through the process, allay their fears, console them, or celebrate with them when they are finished with treatment. That ability is key to the entire process. So while most of us who work in robotics think that it’s an amazing, cutting-edge technology, almost no one I have spoken to thinks that this is going to take over. Surgery is not assembly line work.”