Cheaper Than People

“Beep, beep!”

I turned around in the hospital corridor and faced a kind of traveling file cabinet molded out of plastic. No one pushed it. Two lights flashed on its crown. It waited for me to step aside before going to the elevator bank. A door slid open, an orderly with a laundry cart exited the elevator, and only then did the creature zip inside and spin around. The door closed.

I turned to a woman at a nearby desk. “Excuse me, what the hell was that?”
Just a few minutes earlier I had learned that the man I came to visit at the VA hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts had died two years ago at age 94. Gabe Paiva had suffered grievously in prisoner of war (POW) camps in Japan during World War II, but had somehow forgiven his captors for starving and beating him and forgave the Nippon Corporation for his brutal treatment at their dockyards. Graciously, he had let me interview him for a book about POWs. Why hadn’t I come back here sooner? In my hand I gripped a little box of cookies from an Italian bakery.

The woman at the desk explained. “That thing is a robot orderly. There are three of them here and more at the VA in West Roxbury. Sometimes they get in the way or freeze in front of a shadow, but they don’t take vacation or need sick days or ask for health insurance. They go twenty-four-seven.”

“Cheaper than people,” she said.

Cheaper than people, sure, but do we really need robot orderlies replacing the flesh-and-blood kind when the unemployment rate is 9.6 percent? I can hear the reply: automation saves money. Healthcare costs are out of control. Besides, robotic automation is the wave of the future and you can’t hide from – okay, let me rephrase. Do we really need robot orderlies in VA hospitals when the jobless rate for post-September 11th veterans is 10.2 percent? When the rate for young, male veterans 18-24 climbed to an astronomical 21.6 percent in 2009? And remember, that’s 21.6 percent not counting vets who have, out of despair, stopped looking for work.

In fact, the unemployment rate for young, male veterans, many of whom risked their lives in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, is higher than the rate for young, male non-veterans. These are the heroes we celebrate, supposedly. Yes, vets have problems. We know the list and so do employers: PTSD, mental illness, addictions, homelessness. They knock off for doctor’s appointments. They don’t go twenty-four-seven. They have attitudes.

Business, after all, is business. Times are tough all around. New technologies allow, in the jargon, for productivity enhancement, peak reallocation of resources and optimal refocusing of staff. And you have to admit it’s a remarkable creation, the TUG automated robot delivery system from Pittsburgh-based Aethon, Inc. Named for its skill at “tugging” supplies through hospital corridors, TUG carries up to 500 pounds, rides elevators by itself and has no sharp edges. It’s RFID (radio frequency identification)- and Wi-Fi-enabled.

All very modern – nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that the VA should give its orderly jobs to unemployed veterans instead of mobile plastic cubes. Any hospital that accepts federal subsidies and grants – all of them, actually – should think twice about installing robots manufactured overseas instead of hiring vets who served their country overseas. Granted, pushing around supplies may not be the career position promised in military recruitment ads, but it’s honest work.

As for the glorious techno-future, we need to rigorously appraise its trade-offs. The transition to automation is not just an economic question, but a moral challenge, and one is not a Luddite for being concerned about the human cost of the March of Progress. It is right to question the ethics of American companies, many flush with cash, who are now retooling with robots rather than rehiring workers.

Later that day, I tried visiting another ex-POW who resides at the Bedford VA. Roger Hughes swan-dived from a B-17 bomber over Nazi Germany and loves telling his tale of survival. After the war, he was hired by the postal service under a veteran’s preference law. I couldn’t find Roger in his room and was told that he’d gone for a walk, maybe in the basement hallways. Still clutching the box of cookies, I set off in search of the rambling vet and, wouldn’t you know it, once more ran into a robo-orderly.

“Beep, beep!” TUG, ever polite, moved aside to let me pass.