The Future of AI Robots in Health Care: 5 Questions with Rukhsana Ahmed

A portrait of Associate Professor Rukhsana Ahmed smiling with arms crossed in front of a plain gray background.
Associate Professor Rukhsana Ahmed of the Department of Communication co-edited a special journal issue focusing on how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the use of AI machines in health care (Photo by Scott Freedman).

By Jordan Carleo-Evangelist

ALBANY, N.Y. (Oct. 27, 2022) — The physical distancing that defined the COVID-19 pandemic for many dramatically impacted the ways humans communicated with each other and interacted with their environments.

Among communication researchers, the pandemic also accelerated conversations about the ways humans communicate with machines and the roles those machines, increasingly powered by artificial intelligence, play in our health care system.

With many health care workers on the front lines becoming ill in the earliest waves of the pandemic, how might things have been different if many high-risk tasks could have been performed by intelligent machines?

Rukhsana Ahmed, associate professor and immediate past chair of the Department of Communication, co-edited a special issue of the Human-Machine Communication Journal that focused on the pandemic and where AI-powered robots are taking the medical field next.

Ahmed, who has been at UAlbany since 2018, researches the role of communication in improving health outcomes among marginalized communities and promoting broader organizational and social change and innovation. We caught up with her to discuss the implications of intelligent machines for the future of health care.

With terms like 'embodied AI' and Humanoid AI Robots (HAIRs), what exactly are we talking about?

Embodied AI refers to AI robots that can physically sense the world and learn how to navigate and interact with their surroundings. Forms of embodied AI are already in use in autonomous vehicles, personal robots and some virtual assistants.

Humanoid AI Robots (HAIRs) are embodied AI with human-like forms — for example, social robots that are designed to resemble humans and that communicate and interact with humans and their environment. These machines are designed to look humanoid, in part, because it makes them more socially acceptable and allows them to express intention in ways more easily perceived by humans. 

Having a humanoid robot diagnose your illness is very different than having it make your cup of coffee. Will the technology capable of providing high-quality care via intelligent machines arrive sooner than humans’ willingness to accept it?

Humanoid AI-based robot technology is revolutionizing health care, and reliable humanoid robots will be a vital component of efficient and effective healthcare systems of the future.

With this rapid technological innovation, it has become all the more important for researchers and practitioners to accelerate discussions and debates of the different issues surrounding the use of AI robot technologies in health care. Having these discussions now will be critical to human acceptance later. Consider, for example, the possibility of humanoid AI robots malfunctioning, or the possibility of lack of patient trust in humanoid AI robot health care providers. Much scholarly attention has focused on the technological ability of these machines to the exclusion of the shifting communicative context and the interpersonal dynamics among humans and their machine partners.

There also are concerns regarding social expectations and communication practices related to human interactions with AI applications. These concerns will become paramount as patient interactions with AI become more common in settings like mental health care.

How are AI machines already changing health care delivery?

Humanoid AI robots enjoy a wide range of applications in today’s health care settings, including disseminating information as hospital receptionists, in nursing and elder care and helping radiology departments reduce risk and increase safety for human operators.

There also are widespread applications of embodied AI in mental health care. However, there is a lack of guidance on design and regulation. AI-enabled mental health devices, for example, raise important questions regarding data security and patient privacy

Health care organizations are increasingly turning to humanoid robots to improve patient safety and care quality. More research is warranted to thoroughly evaluate the ethical and social aspects of embodied AI applications in these settings. Overall, the potential benefits are significant, including breaking down geographical barriers, reducing health care delivery costs, assisting medical professionals in communicating with their patients, providing safer, faster, and easier service, and ultimately making health care more accessible to everyone

Has the COVID-19 pandemic made us more accepting of human-machine communication, or has the social isolation of the pandemic made us appreciate the value of actual human interaction more?

With rapid development in artificial intelligence and robot technologies, human-machine communication research has made a remarkable leap forward over the past decade – and the COVID-19 pandemic has, without a doubt, accelerated that progress. With humanoid robot technologies moving into diverse health care fields and the key role these advances play in care delivery, the question still remains: Can human-machine communication be a substitute for actual human interaction? 

While many may automatically consider AI robots to be beneficial to health care given their ability to automate services, increase patient safety and improve care delivery, successful integration of robotic applications into our existing healthcare system also poses challenges. These challenges include organizing and distributing health care work and navigating role reversal – that is, substituting human capabilities versus supporting or augmenting them. Although advances in humanoid AI robots have helped reduce time and cost barriers and thus provided great hope for improving health care and extending its reach, we must also examine its effects on things like patient satisfaction.     

What excites you most about your field over the next five years?

Overall, humanoid robot technologies have a vast potential for positive change in health care. It is hard to deny such positive possibilities, but inevitably there is need for research to better understand the big-picture impact of humanoid robot technologies in the sector. Even when these technologies are adopted, there is still the issue of learning to use them, learning and honing technical and digital skills, and overcoming cultural barriers, such as social rules and norms, to widespread acceptance. I am eager to see communication scholarship help bridge the gap between theory, practice, and policy in human-machine communication. Translational communication research can help contextualize human-machine communication not as substitution but as augmentation to advance human-machine partnership.

Regardless of where humanoid AI robots are stationed, whether it be in public areas or areas with increased risk of infections such as a clinical setting, the applications associated with the deployment of robotic technology for the future seem endless.