Robots at your service
In the healthcare facility of the future, humans will be so accustomed to robots that both will ‘walk’ side by side without so much as a second glance.
This was the prediction of Ms Selina Seah, Assistant Chief Executive Officer of Changi General Hospital (CGH), during a panel discussion at the recent GovInsider Innovation Labs World summit on 27 September.
The panel examined the use of robots by government agencies to both increase productivity, and help them serve citizens better.
Also on the panel were Mr Adrian Lim, Director of the Education Sector at the Infocomm Media Authority of Singapore (IMDA) and Mr Siow Shong Seng, Director of Technology & Service Innovation at the National Library Board (NLB).
The panel was chaired by Mr Joshua Chambers, Founder and Editor of GovInsider.
“On a national level, what we are trying to do with robots for healthcare is look at how we could use robotics to build smart healthcare facilities; be it smart hospitals of the future, or even smart homes,” said Ms Seah.
Supporting Singapore’s rapidly ageing population is the direction that healthcare providers will take for the next 15 years, Ms Seah added.
“We need to look at how we could make healthcare standardised and hence more cost-effective; and also how we can automate work that is dull, dirty or dangerous in healthcare.”
Robots in Surgery
She shared that robots already perform many delivery functions in Changi General Hospital: from lab samples from the wards, to the daily supply of linen and meals to patients.
The hospital also carries out automated robotic packing of drugs for both inpatient and outpatient purposes.
“We also deploy robotics for rehabilitation,” she said, adding that this is the “low-hanging fruit” that helps increase productivity of hospital staff.
Robots are also moving into the surgical theatre.
With robotics systems, surgeons can be more precise in the way they perform surgeries, and in prescribing medicine to patients.
“Robotics can help to augment human capability in many ways. But does that replace the surgeon? It doesn’t at this present moment, because every single human patient, anatomically, physiologically, psychosocially and cognitively, is different. It is not as straightforward as manufacturing, where you can apply a completely robotic solution,” Ms Seah noted.
“However, surgical robots can augment the capabilities of the surgeons and nurses.”
Change is coming
When it comes to education, on the other hand, Mr Lim said that robots function better as learning companions.
“Of course, you can go for the ‘low-hanging fruit’, procuring robots for productivity enhancement in attendance-taking,” he remarked. “To me, it can be overkill if you bring in a five-figure robot just to take attendance.”
He went on to elaborate on two ways that robots are being used in kindergartens right now.
In one scenario, young students in Singapore schools learned how to independently check-out their items at a supermarket with the help of Pepper, a social humanoid robot that doubles up as a cashier.
Pepper scans the coins placed in front of her to check that the right amount is provided.
“The purpose is to see how the kids learn and interact with robots. In Japan, for example, Pepper the robot gives directions to commuters at the train station, who will take it in their stride, bowing to Pepper afterwards and then going on their way,” Mr Lim said.
“Some adults have problems doing self-check-out in a supermarket even now, and here we are preparing Singaporean children really early,” he said with a laugh.
Humans not left on the shelf
And in Singapore’s libraries, robots are hardly out of place, as Mr Siow explained.
“A lot of you are thinking, libraries and robots—what’s it got to do with anything? Well, NLB has 28 locations operating seven days a week. In a way, it’s like having retail outlets. There are challenges just like in retail, in terms of logistics.”
Library users may return materials such as books and audiovisual content to any library, not just the one they borrowed from; and yet, those materials have to be transported back to the original library, Mr Siow said.
“In our business, it’s sort of retail and logistics. That’s where robotics plays a big part in terms of automation and productivity. We have an auto sorter: for each of the public libraries, you drop the book into the return slot, and it is sorted and directed to the right bin for each library,” he said, adding that NLB generally handles around 90-100,000 items a month—a huge undertaking if done manually.
Even at night, NLB’s robotic staff are hard at work while their human counterparts are off-duty.
“We also deploy a shelf-reading robot. Every day, we have teams restocking misplaced books according to Dewey decimal indexing, and it’s quite labour-intensive. The robot will scan the bookshelf and identify the right location for each book.”
Notably, Mr Siow was quick to add that the rise of the robot worker doesn’t necessarily mean that human workers will be “displaced”; rather, they are freed up to carry out tasks of higher value—and complexity.
“Placing items on the shelf is something that at the moment, robotics can’t handle, so we still need humans for that last mile,” he said.
“Even their parents wanted to be part of the activity, because they have never interacted with robots before. Mind you, these are all folks in their 30s.”
In another scenario, robots similar to Pepper — but smaller in size — are also making an appearance at local kindergarten My First Skool as a learning companion, particularly for storytelling sessions and collaborative play, added Mr Lim.