While he is enthused about his company’s growth, Daniel Theobald, co-founder and CTO of Vecna Technologies, does have profound concern about the future for robots in the U.S. Twelve months ago, when we first spoke, the company’s efforts in robots were focused on healthcare. After a very eventful twelve months, the company has been expanding in several directions.
The year’s highlight has probably been Vecna’s acquisition of VGo, a pioneer developer of telepresence robots. Vecna had previously been known for the logistical capabilities of its robots. Speaking recently, we asked Theobald, in view of mobile telepresence alternatives, how important an area is this for robots?
Telepresence – Uses And Advantages Of Robots
Theobald cites numerous advantages that teleprescence robots offer over other forms of video conferencing. In healthcare, he points out that a doctor remotely controlling the robot can talk with a patient or staff, without requiring anyone else’s assistance to set up a link. The patient can even be observed remotely while sleeping. This can alleviate the need to have a person at the bedside of a critically ill sleeping patient or expand capability to monitor those patients at risk to themselves, i.e. possible suicides.
Vecna also points to a home monitoring application, which is being used by Boston Children’s Hospital where the VGo is sent home with urology patients. This allows the doctor to observe the patient if any problems occur, without first requiring a return visit to the hospital by the patient.
In the educational context, the robot can allow a homebound child to personally participate in the day at school. “They can walk down the hall with friends, even play in the playground,” he explains.
Telepresence Robots In The Enterprise
He also cited examples of the use of VGo robot in enterprises. Audi, for one is using the robots in their dealerships. The robot permits a mechanic to communicate in realtime with an Audi expert to expedite diagnosis and correcting of repair issues on cars brought into the dealership by owners. Jetblue employs robots in its terminals to help passengers with flight and other information. The robots can move around the terminal and help in busy areas, alleviating pressures on the airline’s staff.
The VGo telepresence business is divided fairly equally between healthcare, education and the enterprise market. In certain situations, such as a homebound child, the robot may be highly personalized for that individual. However, other robots such as those used in hospitals will be shared for requirements of many patients.
Robots In Healthcare – Robot Doctors?
Theobald states, “Robots are the lowest cost option in healthcare provision, with a strong return on investment.”
Will robots become involved in actual healthcare provision? Theobald says he has “mixed feelings” about the concept of a “robotic doctor.” On the one hand, he expects continued advances in self-administered, rapid testing for patients. He does feel that in areas such as setting up blood pressure tests, intravenous feeding, immunizations and other areas there can be an increasing role for robots, although cost will be an issue.
But he makes the following key point: “It is a disservice if technology replaces people. Robots should make people ‘more human.’”
What Theobald means specifically is that by relieving healthcare workers of many tedious and time-consuming tasks, the robots will allow them to focus their time and attention on the human part of their jobs, their patients.
In our view, the antithesis of this, “disservice”, is robotics being the greatest extension of humankind’s capabilities since the Industrial Age: this may be the greatest production multiplier we have ever seen. The Luddites and Cotton Gin foes will forever be with us.
Robotic Machine Perception
Continued R&D in the robotics field is one of Vecna’s hallmarks. They hold numerous patents. One of the areas of focus currently is Machine Perception.
Theobald discussed with us their efforts at getting robots to: a) recognize the presence of a human, and b) identify the person. We asked if there was cross-pollination between Vecna and companies that are working on machine vision in the automotive area. He told us that the attention to self-driving cars was driving investment in machine vision, but that some of the larger companies were unwilling to share technology developments. Vecna, which maintains its own extensive lab, contributes to open source. He told us they have been contacted by some larger companies.
Logistical Robots Move Beyond Healthcare
This year has seen continued expansion of Vecna’s logistical robots into markets beyond healthcare. Theobald explains, “We chose to do healthcare first, because it is a very difficult environment for robots to function in.” The company now has the most complete line of logistical robots for manufacturing and warehousing, he told us. They can handle even extremely heavy weights, up to 2000 kg, with towing capacity of 4500kg. They are also trialing robots in the hospitality industry.
Along with broadening the scope of their robot business, Vecna has also been expanding its marketing, by adding resellers. These are typically integrators in a specific vertical, e.g., manufacturing automation providers.
Robotics – Is The U.S. Keeping Up; Will There Be A Price To Pay?
Theobald raises a serious concern about the future of robotics in the U.S. in particular. He worries that, “The U.S. is not committed to robotics; this is unlike other advanced economies, such as the EU, as well as China, which are making huge investments in robotics.”
We believe that this is due, in part, to scare headlines about how many jobs will be lost to robots. (For example, “Experts predict robots will take over 30% of our jobs by 2025 — and white-collar jobs aren’t immune,” BusinessInsider.com 5/1/15.) The more balanced articles also point out that many new jobs will be created, as automation continues to grow.
However, Theobald makes another point, which is that if the U.S. doesn’t keep up with progress in robotics, the overall standard of living will decline and jobs will be lost to other countries. He also emphasizes how important robotics will be to the military. (It should be noted that Daniel Theobald came to widespread attention in 2005 for his development of the BEAR (Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot) used to extract wounded soldiers from battlefields – and other dangerous tasks – without risk to other humans.)
Vecna’s Healthcare IT Business Moves Ahead
In addition to robots, Vecna occupies a key position in the area of healthcare IT systems and solutions. While their robot business is growing, Theobald stated that healthcare IT is still the largest part of their business. A year ago we had discussed the barriers to entry presented by embedded EMR (electronic medical records) for Vecna and other newer healthcare IT providers. Has there been much progress in this situation?
Theobald told us that the big picture in healthcare in the U.S. is that the OPM (“other people’s money”) syndrome is breaking down. “Patients’ responsibility for billing used to be only 5%, it is now up to over 30%,” he stated. “With actual customers as payers increasing, it puts more pressure on providers to improve customer satisfaction and cost.”
As for the EMRs, they still feel that “we do it all” and customer satisfaction is not important to them. However, Theobald points out that with sharply increasing consolidation among providers, many hospital systems are confronted with having to deal with multiple EMRs and look to Vecna to help them simplify their systems, “swap out the EMRs,” as he puts it. Theobald adds, “We have had some big victories, that haven’t been announced yet.”
Helping Healthcare Consumers
“Success with consumers comes down to convenience,” he states. Vecna provides several tools for enhancing the consumer experience. This includes their platform system, the Patient Information Exchange, with registration, queuing, survey and other features, as well as a Vitals Chair that lets the patient check their own vital signs. Vecna also is a leader in the area of Patient Flow Consulting, which it provides as a service to healthcare organizations. The company also maintains its QC Pathfinder services, which is devoted to infection tracking and prevention in healthcare.
Visit their website: www.vecna.com/robotics/