Expanding roles for robots under the epidemic
This article appeared originally in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on 29 Sep, 2020.
Authors: Amy Liu, Managing Editor at Our Hong Kong Foundation
Robots can help to minimise infections by delivering services without personal contact, while new technologies like 5G help to open up new possibilities for the industry.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to plague the city with the third wave of infections, two of the worst-hit sectors are restaurants and elderly homes, both of which involve providing service to individuals in close proximity. Many infected groups came from these two sectors, affecting both customers and staff alike. The government has imposed severe restrictions on the eat-in hours and the number of customers in an attempt to stop infections through restaurants, severely affecting their revenue. But the reality is that restaurants, and indeed elderly homes, provide services to the people of Hong Kong that are absolutely necessary. Fortunately, though the services themselves are irreplaceable, the means of providing them can adapt with the help of technology.
To eliminate the risk of person-to-person infections, one innovative solution is the use of robots to provide the service. A workable showcase is already available in Hong Kong Science Park. An intelligent restaurant which opened in recent months has a set of robots working as chefs and waiters. The robot chef is able to cook the classic Chinese dish "fried egg with shrimps", complete with seasonings. A robot waiter then takes the dish to customers via preset routes while avoiding all obstacles. As a robot, the chef guarantees hygienic treatment in the cooking process. Customers order food wirelessly without coming into contact with people, eliminating the risk of infection via conversation. This positive development is exciting news for both customers as well as the food and beverage industry as it offers a safe way of providing services.
Reducing risk of infection
Robots can also help reduce infection risks in elderly homes, which had seen at least 19 institutions with infection cases across the city. An increasing number of elderly homes are using "smart care robots", which perform tasks such as monitoring rooms and dormitories, reminding the residents to drink water, and taking the temperature. If the robot discovers that someone has a fever or has fallen, an alert will be sent to the controller in real time, allowing swift treatment or action. If personal visits are not allowed, residents can make video calls to their relatives via the robot, while it can also send live video of the residents to their relatives, easing their minds.
Hospital is another institution at risk, with at least 16 medical staffs infected so far this year. A research recently published in the leading international medical journal Lancet pointed out that the risk of clinical staff catching COVID-19 is 24 times higher than the general public, and even higher than the 16 times for staff at elderly homes. Considering clinical staffs in Hong Kong are routinely overworked, robots are particularly useful. In Wuhan in mainland China, each smart robot in hospitals can perform the work of five to eight clinical staffs in the isolation ward for tasks like environmental disinfection and taking the temperature, without the need of a human operator. In Hong Kong, the government is trying to recruit staff for the temporary hospital at the AsiaWorld-Expo, but it should really consider introducing robots for tasks such as the distribution of meals and medicine, because it will help to reduce the risk of person-to-person infection.
The food and beverage industry, elderly homes and the health sector are increasingly appreciative of the key benefit of using robots under the pandemic, because it helps to reduce interpersonal contact and hence the risk of infection. Robots are also used in shopping malls, shops, schools, and cleaning companies for a wide range of purposes, like taking the temperature and disinfection, leading to a surge in the sale of robots since the outbreak began. In other sectors, robots can help do tedious jobs such as brick-laying in the construction industry, monitor buildings in the security sector, as well as assist in distribution and delivery in the logistics field.
Besides helping with social distancing, robots play important roles in the advancement of medicine. The two university medical schools in Hong Kong have both researched the use of robots for medical purposes. A Chinese University team won the first Engineering Medical Innovation Global Competition with the "Surgical Robotic System for Endoscopic Submucosal Dissection". Last year, the university teamed up with top international universities including Imperial College London, Johns Hopkins University and ETH Zurich to set up the Multi-Scale Medical Robotics Centre to further strengthen this area.
The way forward for the robotics industry
At the turn of the century, the fight against SARS helped to popularise internet shopping. The effect of the COVID-19 epidemic is even more far-reaching, with web meetings now indispensable, while widespread self-isolation leads to better experiences in internet shopping and logistics. As the outbreak continues to plague the world, robots are likely to be used even more widely. In future, technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence, and Internet-of-Things will all look to create different types of robots for specific functions, creating huge opportunities for the robotics industry. Hong Kong should make use of its strength as a scientific research centre to work with the strong manufacturing capabilities in the Greater Bay Area to grasp this opportunity.
The Hong Kong government is taking this issue seriously, as Science Park has already established research and development platforms Health@InnoHK and AIR@InnoHK. To ensure high quality, labs or projects joining InnoHK platforms are required to have collaboration with world class institutions. As we noted in previous reports, Hong Kong is blessed with excellent science and research capabilities in our tertiary institutions. The surging demand for robots provides a great opportunity for us to work with global partners to make robots that serve important needs, which is not just a business opportunity, it also saves lives.