Robots have already invaded the operating room in some hospitals, but in Belgium they will soon be taking on the potentially more difficult task -- for robots, at least -- of greeting patients and giving them directions.
The Citadelle regional hospital in Liège and the Damiaan general hospital in Ostend will be working with Zora Robotics to test patients' reactions to robot receptionists in the coming months.
Zora already has experience programming the diminutive humanoid robot Nao to act as a chatty companion for the elderly, offering it as a form of therapy for those with dementia.
Now the Belgian company is working with Nao's newer, bigger sibling, Pepper. Both were developed by French robotics company Aldebaran, now owned by Japanese Internet conglomerate SoftBank.
Like Nao before it, Pepper has already found work as a receptionist in Japanese hotels, an environment where visitors are likely to be less nervous and more familiar with their surroundings than those arriving at a hospital.
Pepper has a couple of advantages over Nao in the hospital environment. It's a lot taller -- about 1.2 meters high -- making it more visible and less likely to be knocked over in a crowded lobby. It also has a tablet computer mounted on its chest, so if spoken communication fails due to background noise or language problems, it can always fall back on the written word, images, and maps.
"From the moment Pepper is not understanding you, everything is shown on the tablet and you can click on the button: You have the same information," Zora co-CEO Tommy Derrick said.
Zora will begin by putting a robot in each hospital, initially for a couple of hours a week as it gathers data on the robots' performance, then gradually increasing their presence, Derrick said.
In the first phase, Pepper will just welcome people. "Normally you will have a letter telling you to come to the hospital, so you can go to Pepper and say, 'I am patient X, here is my card, tell me where to go,'" Derrick said. Pepper will then tell the patient where her appointment is and explain, perhaps using videos, how to get there.
In the second phase of development, the robot could accompany the visitor to her destination, he said.
Ultimately, Derrick hopes Belgium's data protection authorities will grant the robots permission to handle personal information. Then, said Derrick, "We can have one-on-one conversations with patients to help them fill in forms, see if they need special stickers on their paperwork, if they need to make an appointment to come back, and so on."
Zora has sold more than 300 Nao robots running its custom software in the healthcare market, something Derrick said the company achieved by listening to its clients. "Each month we would talk to our customers and ask, 'what did you like, what didn't you like, do you have new ideas,' and those we programmed into new behaviors for the robot," he said.
There will still be limits on how Pepper can interact with people.
"Having a natural emotional conversation with a robot isn't possible, anywhere in the world, not even with IBM Watson," he said. "Pepper will have capabilities of recognizing emotion and carrying on a natural conversation, but in five or ten years, not today."
That absence of emotion doesn't mean Pepper has to act and sound, well, robotic.
"We can play with the voice, we can pitch it, we can lower it. The movements we can make, we have a whole database of moments like on the Nao," Derrick said.