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商业 - 科技

新一代机器人来了

Clay Dillow 2013年06月18日

《生活大爆炸》里谢耳朵DIY过的远程呈现机器人已经成为现实。通过自带的GPS导航系统,它可以按用户设定的路线自行走到指定地点,而用户通过iPad界面就可以远程指挥它完成各种操作。现在,这种机器人已通过了美国政府的认证,正在医院试点。未来,它将有望进入人类生活的方方面面。

思科公司的远程呈现机器人。

    机器人远程呈现技术是那些总是离我们说远不远、说近不近的技术中的一种。未来主义者说它会改变一切。但是尽管近年来已经有些设计得不错的遥控机器人技术投放市场(比如Vgo和Double Robotics),但是还没有哪种解决方案的先进性和用户友好性能够满足主流需要。这种机器人可以让人类操控者遥控操作一个自己的机器人“化身”,从而让这个机器人在另一个城市、另一个国家乃至是另一个星球上的某个环境中移动,并与其他人进行互动。比如说一个身在芝加哥的公司经理,可以借由这种技术实时参观托皮卡市的一个工厂。但目前从很多方面上看,遥控机器人还只是一种高价的玩具。

    位于马萨诸塞州贝德福德市的iRobot公司相信,它已经改变了这种局面。这家公司最出名的产品是一款可爱的自动拖地机器人Roomba。这家公司长期以来一直非常了解客户的需求,不断完善自己的技术,同时为终端用户生产正确的产品,不管这个用户是有洁癖的家庭主妇,还是在阿富汗拆地雷的美国海军拆弹专家。(iRobot确实生产拆弹机器人。)今年早些时候,iRobot公司悄悄地在北美的7家医院里推出了一款名叫RP-VITA的远程医疗机器人(其中6家在美国,1家在墨西哥城)。在现实医疗环境中,人们怎样看待医疗机器人的表现,这个问题不仅对iRobot公司和它的技术伙伴InTouch Health公司来说意义重大,对远程机器人这门技术来说也是一样。

    iRobot公司的CEO科林•安格尔说:“我们制造机器人和研究远程呈现技术已经超过10年了。我们意识到一个问题,那就是,一个很酷的原型产品和一款真正的产品之间存在巨大的区别。”安格尔还表示,该公司终于研发出了RP-VITA这款真正的遥控机器人产品。如果它能在快节奏、甚至有时极为繁杂的医院环境中适应下来,那么像RP-VITA这种机器人就没有理由不能适应其他任何环境。RP-VITA的成功可能标志着一股新潮流的开始。

    医疗界是一个不错的试验田来率先使用这门技术。现代医学的专门化已经发展到了非常复杂的地步,目前医学这个大框架下已经涵盖了150多个被学界认可的专科和亚专科,而在20世纪中叶时大概还只有20个专科左右。远程医学机器人正是在这个领域找到了巨大的增长空间。位于加州圣芭芭拉市的InTouch Health公司为医疗行业开发的界面、应用和远程呈现解决方案现已应用到了700多家医院中,使医生们(一般是城市大医院的专家)可以与病床上的病人通过音频和视频直播进行远程电视电话会诊,还能与护士和病人进行交流。

    Robotic telepresence remains one of those technologies that is always lingering just on the horizon; it's going to change everything, the futurists say, just as soon as it gets here. But while several clever telerobotics solutions have come to market in recent years (Vgo and Double Robotics for instance), no solution has yet been both sophisticated and user-friendly enough for the mainstream. These robots -- designed to give a remote human operator control of a mobile surrogate robot so that, for instance, a company manager in Chicago can virtually tour a factory floor in Topeka -- allow users to move around an environment and interact with people and objects on the other side of the city, country, or planet. But for the most part, telerobots remain high-priced toys.

    Bedford, Mass.,-based iRobot (IRBT) believes it's finally changed that. The company -- perhaps best known for its adorable, automated floor-sweeping Roomba robots -- has a long, established record of understanding its customer, adequately maturing its technologies, and producing the right solution for its end users, whether that user is an immaculately clean apartment-dweller or a Navy explosives ordnance disposal specialist disarming IEDs in Afghanistan. (iRobot builds those robots too.) Earlier this year iRobot quietly rolled out its RP-VITA telemedicine robot in seven North American hospitals (six in the U.S. and one in Mexico City), and how they are received in the hospital environment could spell big things not only for iRobot and its technology partnerInTouch Health, but for telerobotics at large.

    "We've been building robots and working on the remote presence problem for well over a decade, and the one thing we have come to realize is that the difference between a cool prototype and a product is huge," says iRobot CEO Colin Angle. In RP-VITA, Angle says, the company has finally developed a real telerobotics product, and if it can survive the rigors of the fast-paced, sometimes frenetic hospital environment, there's no reason why robots like RP-VITA couldn't work anywhere. Success for RP-VITA could mark the beginning of a trend.

    Telemedicine isn't a bad place to start. Modern medicine has sprawled into an often confusing array of specializations -- currently there are something like 150 different recognized medical specialties and sub-specialties; at the middle of the last century there were roughly a dozen -- and it's here that telemedicine has found a great deal of room for growth. Santa Barbara, Calif.,-based InTouch Health creates interfaces, apps, and remote presence solutions for the health care industry that are now in more than 700 hospitals, allowing doctors -- generally specialists at larger, urban hospitals -- to digitally teleconference themselves to a patient's bedside and converse with both nurses and patients over live audio and video connections.

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