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Friends come in all shapes and sizes … of silicon

Who wouldn't want a 'cute social robot' for a little buddy?
A robot writes a Torah at an installation in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday, July 10, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Markus Schreiber)
A robot writes a Torah at an installation in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday, July 10, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Markus Schreiber)

There are moments when you see something that you almost intuitively understand to be the future. For good or bad, you are in awe of the first sample of things to come. I can’t even imagine the reaction of people who first saw an airplane fly. The skies that had always been perceived as the realm of the gods, suddenly became accessible to human beings. I am sure, to paraphrase Robert Oppenheimer, some cried, some laughed and some were just silent. But all realized that they were witnesses to an entirely new era.

In my daily reading I came across two articles (12) that left me almost speechless. We can expect to see “the rise of the robotic companions” (just please don’t call them the T-800 Model 101) in the years to come. And I must say, based on my first observations, this will be an incredibly welcome technology, especially in the world of medicine.

Jibo is described as a “cute social robot for the family”. This device sports an artificially intelligent core that does learn to recognize people’s needs and wishes. Jibo is definitely also a platform on which all types of protocols and workflows can be built.

Imagine such a device sitting next to the bed of every admitted patient, independent of age or disease state. Admittedly, this version of Jibo may not be suited for the ICU. But it definitely has a place almost everywhere else in a hospital setting.

Jibo could be a constant companion for collecting important medical information, asking follow-up questions, identifying critical situations, passing information to the nurses and doctors, and collecting an endless feed of sensor information for later analysis. Medical research has demonstrated that even comatose patients can benefit from a constant flow of conversation. Jibo would be the endless conversationalist and might very well make the critical difference.

Imagine a patient wakes up at two in the morning and is in pain. The patient could ask Jibo for assistance. In turn, Jibo would ask a number of critical questions, check the medical record of the patient, check standing orders for the patient, and then communicate with the on-site nurse with a clear history and suggestion for management. This alone would dramatically improve quality of care and reduce the risk of patients deteriorating under the “guise” of the medical staff. Just the sense of security that such a friendly robot would provide, would already reduce anxiety and patients tremendously. I almost can’t overstate how much I believe in this technology for improving patient care.

For young patients, Jibo would also be invaluable. The entire interface has a pleasant, even childlike manner. Children would naturally gravitate towards Jibo and would likely focus on playing games and vocally interacting with Jibo. This was again  dramatically reduce anxiety in the children and make the entire hospital experience much more comfortable.

Jibo could even be the go-between for patients and friends and family. Rather than take phone calls from those who are concerned, Jibo could intercept all forms of communication and respond as designated by the patient. For the parents or other family member who is intricately involved in the patient’s care, Jibo could provide updates and even be a portal for videoconferencing.

Jibo could regularly ask questions to collect important clinical information about the patient. But Jibo could be a tremendous source of information for those same patients. Imagine a patient who is about to undergo surgery. Previous research is shown that increased patient teaching about surgery and its follow-up, help patients cope with the entire experience.

Jibo could provide a great deal of such patient education, but always at the patient’s request and to the extent that the patient wishes. Once again imagine a patient who wakes up at 2 o’clock in the morning and has a critical question about the surgery for the following day. Instead of going back to sleep [or at least trying to], the patient could ask Jibo any question. The immediate responsiveness of Jibo would put the patient at rest.

Jibo could also act as a unique identifier for each patient. I imagine that pretty soon, every admitted individual will be tagged with a unique identifying smart bracelet. Jibo could read this bracelet and introduce the patient every time a medical staffer approached. This would eliminate confusion as to the specific patient, and reduce such medical errors as giving an inappropriate medication.

Jibo could even be an advocate for the patient. Jibo could notify the appropriate person in charge if certain requests of the patient were unmet on multiple occasions. Both the medical and nursing staff would quickly realize that Jibo will not let anything happen to the patient, unless it is meant to happen.

No such robot companions are ready for mass distribution. But by 2020, I would expect them to be commonplace. Of course, price will be an issue  but I imagine that such devices will soon become cheap enough for almost anyone to afford. And then of course, one must take into account what the next generation of Jibo will bring.

Amongst the crowd that saw the first successful flight of an airplane, there were definitely those who already imagined our crowded skies above major cities. They saw a world where only imagination limited possibilities. Jibo inspires such feelings, and in my opinion, will become an essential part of the medical environment within the decade to come.

Me: Jibo, how are you?
Jibo: I am fine. Can I help you?
Me: No, I just wanted to know that you are there. And …”
Jibo: And what?
Me: Thanks for listening.
Jibo: It is always a pleasure

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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