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Robots Deliver Hospital Food

Written by Gary North on February 13, 2015

Everyone complains about hospital food. That’s before they see what each meal cost them.

Now, to save money, the University of California’s hospital has assigned to robots the task of delivering this food.

It does no good to complain to a robot about the lack of nutrition or taste.

This is the wave of the future. A reporter describes it.

Far down the hospital hall, double doors part to reveal the automaton. There’s no dramatic fog or lighting—which I jot down as “disappointing”—only a white, rectangular machine about four feet tall. It waits for the doors to fully part, then cautiously begins to roll toward us, going about as fast as a casual walk, emitting a soft beep every so often to let the humans around it know it’s on a very important quest. It’s not traveling on a track. It’s unleashed. It’s free.

The robot, known as a Tug, edges closer and closer to me at the elbow of the L-shaped corridor and stops. It turns its wheels before accelerating through the turn, then suddenly halts once again. Josh, the photographer I’d brought along, is blocking its path, and by way of its sensors, the robot knows it. Tug, it seems, is programmed to avoid breaking knees.

This hospital—the University of California, San Francisco’s Mission Bay wing—had opened four days before our visit. From the start, a fleet of Tugs has been shuffling around the halls. They deliver drugs and clean linens and meals while carting away medical waste and soiled sheets and trash. And by the time the fleet spins up to 25 robots on March 1, it’ll be the largest swarm of Tug medical automatons in the world, with each robot traveling an admirable average of 12 miles a day.

This will cut the cost of orderlies. The robots are nothing, if not orderly. They don’t strike. They don’t goof off. They just roll down the hallways.

If you’re a patient here, you can call down to Henroid and his team and place your order if you’re keen on being a savage, or you can use the fancy tablet at your bedside and tap your order in. Down in the kitchen, the cooks—who aren’t robots—fire up your food, load it onto a Tug, and use a touchscreen next to the docking stations to tell the robot where to go. Once the food is loaded, the Tug will wait for 10 minutes, then depart, whether it has just one tray or 12, its max capacity.

There are no beacons to guide the Tugs. Instead, they use maps in their brains to navigate. They’re communicating with the overall system through the hospital’s Wi-Fi, which also allows them to pick up fire alarms and get out of the way so carbon-based lifeforms can escape. Rolling down the halls using a laser and 27 infrared and ultrasonic sensors to avoid collisions, a Tug will stop well away from the elevators and call one down through the Wi-Fi (to open doors, it uses radio waves). It’ll only board an elevator that’s empty, pulling in and doing a three-point turn to flip 180 degrees before disembarking. After it’s made its deliveries to any number of floors—the fleet has delivered every meal since the hospital opened—it gathers empty trays and returns them to the kitchen, where it starts the whole process anew.

Step by step, the cost of paying for low-cost labor is falling. Robots are taking over jobs that they can perform as well or better, but for less money. The programs keep getting more sophisticated. Moore’s law is at work, 24 x 7. This process of labor replacement is not going to be reversed. The robots cut costs. Patients want costs cut. Management responds.

Entry-level jobs as orderlies are about to end. Those who want hospital jobs will have to master skills that cannot be programmed cheaply.

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