We live in an experimental era. Any possible idea that the human mind can conjure has been materialized into reality through technology. In a world hoping to work with artificial intelligence and created machinery, we have innovations that range across the “need” spectrum. From robots who give interviews and voice out their opinions to murderous AI’s, our planet pretty much has every possible innovation in existence. However, have you ever encountered a robot made to suffer? Seems pitiful doesn’t it? However, this wondrous robot plays a vital role in the life of medical students and their understanding of real world medical cases. Hal the robot boy, was designed to recreate realistic medical scenarios for students to handle and analyze effectively. The real world experience is amplified due to the highly accurate responses and demonstrations given by Hal, gearing the students towards an intricate practice.
This medical training robot proves to be an effective replacement to lifeless mannequins which fail to recreate the emotional and physical responses experienced by the patient and the medical attendant. Hal can shed tears, bleed, and urinate. If you shine a light in his eyes, his pupils shrink. You can wirelessly control him to go into anaphylactic shock or cardiac arrest. You can hook him up to real hospital machines, and even jolt him with a defibrillator. Hal presents such emotionally charged responses that medical institutions tend to keep it low to prevent frightening the trainees.
The idea is a huge hit and seems to motivate the students into perfecting their study due to its highly immersive experience. “I’ve seen several nurses be like, ‘Whoa it moves!’” says Marc Berg, medical director at the Revive Initiative for Resuscitation Excellence at Stanford. “I think that’s kind of similar to the idea that if you’ve driven a car for 20 years and then you got a brand new car, you’re kind of amazed initially.”
The company instrumental in the creation of this fascinating $48,000 robot boy is Gaumard Scientific, which has been developing medical simulators since the 1940s, beginning with synthetic skeletons and anatomical figures. Now, though, the company’s tech has become much more interactive with Hal’s extended family of humanoid robots. Victoria is a robotic woman who gives birth to a baby robot. And Super Tory is a newborn that can help nurses learn to watch for signs of illness in real babies.
Inside Hal, a combo mechanical-pneumatic system makes him breathe, and a cartridge in his leg allows him to exhale CO2. Hydraulic systems provide fake blood and tears. Servo motors tug on his face, helping him to look angry, scared or in pain. He presents situations which require emotional assistance like shouting for his mother and telling you not touch him. You can also choose to interact with him through a system that turns your voice into that of a 5 year old.
One of the reasons for building Hal was to train medical workers on how to approach children, who may not be vocal or cooperating about their symptoms. “They can often do that by facial expression,” says James Archetto, Gaumard’s vice president. To get the expressions right, the company’s engineers worked with pediatricians to replicate how an angry or happy child’s face really moves by studying intricate responses that range from brow furrowing to muscle contraction.
However, the robot was primarily designed for study and not for providing a horrifying experience. Although the responses have been kept realistic, the scientists have not made the appearance too lifelike with the addition of freckles or blemishes. His purpose is to convince trainees he’s real enough to be an effective tool, but not so real that he becomes a distraction.
What Hal does have, though, is a functioning nose and mouth. “In certain situations such as anaphylaxis, his tongue will swell, his throat will swell,” says Archetto. Medical trainees can even cut a small slit in his throat to practice inserting a tracheal tube to re-establish an airway.
Students can also hook him up to an EKG to monitor his “heart.” He has a pulse too, which they can monitor with a blood pressure cuff. An instructor can demonstrate these vital signs using a tablet, stringing certain symptoms together to simulate multiple medical conditions. “For so many years, the mannequins were really just rubber human likenesses with basically no interactivity at all,” says Berg. “They’re finally increasing exponentially in their realism.”
The primary concern of the functioning of this robot is the graphic and distressing nature of its responses. Although it provides credible experience and pushes students to accept and work effectively during an emotionally pressing situation, it can be off putting to faint hearted individuals, resulting in them having a fearful and negative outlook on their job. “We can amp the stress level up so high for the participants that people will cry, essentially have to drop out of the scenario,” says Berg. “I do think there’s a good potential that we’ll see more of that emotional type response when the mannequin is so realistic.”
“Maybe one day machines will be so sophisticated they’ll be able to interpret our emotions and replicate our emotions,” says Lillian Su, medical director for simulation at the Heart Center of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. “But until then, we as the humans have to control that part and know how to use the machine so we can train people in that kind of environment.”
“I think that’s going to add an emotional layer, a challenge that we as educators have to be prepared for,” Su adds. Well, Hal certainly educates trainees and gives them a clear image about what their practice has in store for them!