Robots and pandemics in science fiction

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Science Robotics  13 May 2020:
Vol. 5, Issue 42, eabb9590
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abb9590


Recent science fiction illustrates the value of ordinary robots for a pandemic.

Science fiction has posited the use of robots in medicine ever since the short story “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster appeared in 1909, in which a doctor remotely examines a patient in her home through a robot built into her home (1). In 1928, science fiction postulated the replacement of nurses by “psychophonic” robots (2). However, robots specifically assisting with a biological outbreak did not appear until 60 years later in Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, where robots were used to handle contaminated materials. As noted in the recent Science Robotics editorial “Combating COVID-19—The role of robotics in managing public health and infectious diseases,” real-life robots can be used for a wide variety of applications (3). Two high-profile applications are clinical uses, such as for telemedicine and decontamination, and logistics, exemplified by delivery robot start-up companies transporting medical samples or supplies. However, robots are also being used for detecting people infected with the disease and for continuity of work and government. Given the breadth of these opportunities, why have robots for epidemics not appeared more frequently in science fiction, and is this absence a lesson for society?

Illustration accompaning Annalee Newlitz’s award-winning short story “When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis.”CREDIT: LISA LARSON-WALKER

One reason why robotics for infectious diseases has not appeared prominently in science fiction may be the nature of science fiction itself as a mirror of emerging science and cultural concerns. Science fiction can be loosely divided into three genres—techno-thrillers, character-based science fiction, and hard science fiction—each of which has skipped robotics for pandemics. The techno-thriller genre is typified by describing how existing processes and emerging technologies would be applied to extreme situations. There are numerous movies and novels about pandemics, although none with robots. However, techno-thrillers cannot be expected to incorporate robots into the narrative because there is not a technology pull for robotics from the public health community. Character-based science fiction tends to use robots as devices in which to explore human-oriented themes of social dynamics, the nature of intelligence, subjugation of women, etc. (e.g., HBO’s Westworld). Recent science fiction, such as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), has described epidemics, but in those books, civilization has collapsed and robots are a thing of the past. Hard science fiction explores the science that might enable advances, but it has favored space travel and robot uprisings as interesting scenarios to frame delving into the details of how robots might operate. Unfortunately, a robot transporting food to quarantined patients during a pandemic is an important function but not an obviously compelling basis for a story arc.

Fortunately for science fiction lovers, recent work has turned to pandemics and anticipated the applications currently being used during the COVID-19 pandemic. The inspiring 2018 Theodore Sturgeon award–winning short story by i09 founder Annalee Newitz, “When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis,” (4) describes an autonomous surveillance drone that detects an emerging outbreak in a tenement in time to prevent an epidemic. That drone foreshadows the extensive use of ground and aerial robots by China to detect infected citizens and to monitor quarantine compliance. (5) Similar to what is being done in China, The Andromeda Evolution, the 2019 authorized sequel to The Andromeda Strain by Daniel H. Wilson, features small drones that can fly ahead of the new wildfire team to detect the presence of the strain and the use of teleoperated robots to keep scientists isolated as they work with the microorganism. John Scalzi’s novels Lock In (2014) and Head On (2018) describe a near future in which 1% of the population is left paralyzed from a viral pandemic called Hayden’s syndrome. The victims use brain-machine interfaces to operate humanoid telerobots, nicknamed Threeps after C-3PO in Star Wars, enabling them to work and interact with the physical world. The Threeps resemble Ginger (6) and MOXI (7), two mobile robots with manipulator arms intended for hospital use and being offered for COVID response.

The common thread through these recent works of fiction is that the robots are mundane and commonplace, echoing the emerging use of robots for the COVID-19 epidemic. In fiction, the surveillance drone is just another public safety drone to the citizens, robots are simply tools in the hands of competent scientists, and Threeps are treated the same, for better or worse, as a person in a wheelchair. In real life, robots are similarly mundane and valuable. Public safety drones are being repurposed to disinfect public spaces and enforce quarantines. Health care workers are using telemedicine and delegating taking out the trash and delivering meals to robots. Workers are maintaining economic productivity by telecommuting. The lesson from recent science fiction is that in a pandemic, when ordinary life becomes less commonplace, commonplace robots will become more ordinary.


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