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Robots in the Time of Pandemics

Let’s talk about robots in the time of pandemics. For my day job, I’ve been working on robots for the latest disaster: pandemics, I started doing this in 2015 for the Ebola outbreak and you can check out some findings at In the meantime, I’ve been exploring pandemics in science fiction, particularly robot science fiction and pandemics- with a big shout out to and it’s indexed database.

The result is my article for Science Robotics on science fiction and pandemics. It will be available on May 13 and we will post it on the RTSF website as soon as we can.

You’d have thought that science fiction, rife with aliens, nuclear wars, ecological disasters, would have a lot of stories about pandemics where robots were brought in to help. I mean, after all, robots for medicine have been in play since E.M. Forster’s 1909 story The Machine Stops and Keller’s 1928 story The Psychophonic Nurse. But no, there wasn’t anything that I can find with robots being used for a biological outbreak until 1969 with The Andromeda Strain (1971 for the movie)- and there the robot Waldos are props as part of the realism.

The only fiction that I’ve found where robots get a starring role during an epidemic is Annalee Newlitz’s 2018 award winning story When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis, No- it’s not Crow T Robot from Mystery Science Theater 3000. The story describes an autonomous surveillance drone which detects an emerging outbreak in a tenement in time to prevent an epidemic. It’s a great story and packs quite a bit a wallop about the social science of infectious diseases as well as technology. The story is free on Slate.

Could a drone detect people who are infected with a disease? It’s not clear. Many groups are claiming they can but I, and no one I know in public health, has seen any evidence. Thermal imaging even with a person standing still and an optimal distance from the camera wasn’t reliable for SARS or MERS- so we’re not optimistic about it’s chances from a drone hovering above a person and hopefully a safe distance away- because they are flying weedwackers. Detecting coughing is also problematic. I’ve been working on noise reduction of microphones for two-way communication through a drone between rescuers and an injured hiker and it is really, really hard problem to hear anything over the rotors. Plus the privacy issues are almost boundless.

Fortunately for us scifi lovers, while robots don’t get to be the stars very often, teleoperated robots do get to be the solution to continuity of work and quality of life to victims of a pandemic. That’s in the Lock In and Head books by John Scalzi, where 1% of the world’s population is totally paralyzed by a virus and now work through brain-machine interfaces to control humanoid robots. The robots are referred to as Threeps because they resemble C-3P0. If you haven’t read Scalzi, please stop and start reading him NOW- he combines humor, insight, action, and compassion into entertaining, and touching, narratives. And we deserve that in this fraught days, don’t we?

Robots aren’t funny but they are amazing in Daniel H. Wilson’s The Andromeda Evolution. It’s the authorized sequel to The Andromeda Strain and it’s excellent. Lots of robots used in realistic ways, which is to be expected, since Wilson has a PhD in robotics. There have been some negative reviews which are mostly either complaining ”how dare he touch the sacred original?”- whatever- or “the characters are flat”- yeah, like Crichton wrote deep character studies when he was alive?… The RTSF review of The Andromeda Evolution covers its teachable moments about brain-machine interfaces.

So…there’s not a lot out there on robots helping with pandemics, but what there is is worth reading. How Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis is pretty good for kids too if you want something to share with tweens and teens. If you get a chance, read The Machine Stops- you can find it on the internet. It’s a very prescient look at a shelter-in-place future- similar to what we’re living in now, where an elderly woman is a top academic, happily giving virtual talks throughout the world and having a rich virtual social life without leaving her apartment. But at some point the machine infrastructure allowing everyone to live very physically isolated lives breaks and she has to depend on her son to help her leave her home and return to a more “primitive” way of life. I’m being real nice to my son!

In the meantime, stay healthy- and sane!

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