iRobot CEO: Robot nurses to cut health care costs

Remote monitoring equipment that keeps a virtual eye on patients in their own home would save money, says Colin Angle.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
3 min read

BERLIN--In the midst of America's raging debate on the future of health insurance, one man says he has a solution to out-of-control health care costs: more robots.

iRobot healthcare robot
A prototype robotic telepresence "nurse." Erica Ogg/CNET

Of course, this is coming from Colin Angle, a roboticist and CEO of iRobot, the company that makes both robotic vacuum cleaners and bomb-defusing gadgets currently in use by the U.S. military. At IFA here on Friday, he said that robotic telepresence devices, which would act like nurses in a person's home, could reduce the $2.2 trillion, or 17 percent of the U.S. GDP, currently spent on health care every year.

Angle insisted that when it comes to elderly people staying at home instead of moving to a nursing home, or a sick patients that don't need care such as surgery, "all of the things over time can be done with robots."

He's not talking about the kind of robot that the average person might think of, like Rosie from "The Jetsons" or Honda's Asimo. (In fact, Angle says those anthropomorphic style bots are "a technological marvel, but nearly, utterly useless.") Rather, the robotic nurses he has in mind look more like a machine than a man; more similar to the Roomba and Scooba household robots that Angle helped invent.

Instead of patients with chronic illnesses constantly going to a hospital for even minor treatments and checkups, a telepresence device could act as a proxy for the doctor to check in on them. The robot could examine, diagnose, and make sure a prescription is administered on the right schedule. The patient, in other words, wouldn't have to set foot in a hospital unless he or she needs care that is only available there.

The same model would cut the cost of nursing homes for aging people with a diminished ability to perform normal household tasks. In the future, robots are expected to be able to handle tasks such as daily medical reminders, cleaning the house, preparing food, and transportation.

iRobot Roomba robot
The Roomba, from iRobot. Erica Ogg/CNET

While robots aren't cheap, neither are hospital visits. And Angle says he's encouraged by the money that people are already spending on home automation systems and devices. He says that half a million people in the U.S. last year spent between $2,000 and $3,000 each on equipment such as security monitoring services, and that in the next three years, that number will jump to over 7 million. In other words, the idea of spending money to keep an eye on things in your home isn't a totally foreign concept.

Skeptical about robot "nurses"? Angle says he's heard that reaction before. "Our biggest problem is that nobody believes robots work. It's like science fiction," he said.

The sales of Roombas and Scoobas, and the $35 million order that iRobot took from the U.S. Army earlier this week certainly aren't fictional, but there's quite a ways to go before robots can actually do all the things he has in mind. The company's first product, the Roomba vacuum cleaner, took 10 years to develop, while its iConnectr telepresence robot is limited compared to what he envisions for the future.

"That's a start," he said. "I admit we've only taken the first few steps."