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The Robots that Fight Cancer

How robotics is saving lives and setting an example for future automation

By Matt SpazianiPublished 3 years ago Updated 3 years ago 8 min read

In Spring of 2014, I fell in love with robots.

I remember the exact moment that it happened. I was studying an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, and I had the excellent opportunity to work as an intern for the iRobot Corporation. Towards the end of the semester, another intern and I were sent down to Cape Canaveral with one of iRobot’s directors to represent the company at a robotics convention. We were there for a few days, and most of the time the director had other responsibilities, so the two of us were left in charge of the booth.

It was a simple assignment. At the time iRobot had a Defense and Security branch, and the two robots we had with us were from that department: the PackBot, designed for bomb disposal, and the FirstLook, a small reconnaissance robot. The other intern was better at driving the robots while I preferred customer relations, so he did more of the demonstrations and I handled interaction with the public.

(Left) Bomb disposal robot FLIR PackBot 510, (Right) Reconnaissance robot FLIR FirstLook - Photo credit Endeavor Robotics

I must have talked with hundreds of convention visitors while we were there, but one moment sticks out in my mind. There was a small family who came to our booth – a father, a mother, and a child of maybe four years old. Since all of them wanted to see our products and it was fairly quiet at that time, the mother and child went over to my colleague so he could demonstrate the PackBot, and the father stayed with me to talk about the FirstLook. We had a short conversation during which he asked questions and I described the various features of the robot, the same conversation I had been having with visitors for a few days. Then we had an exchange that I remember word-for-word:

“When were these robots released?” he asked.

“This one is newer,” I answered, holding up the FirstLook. “It was only released about five years ago. That one, though—” I pointed to the PackBot. “—I think that’s been out for about ten?”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. He gestured to the robot in my hand. “Because I was gonna say, I don’t recognize this one, but I have a few friends from Iraq that are alive ‘cause of that one.”

He was pointing to the PackBot. To this day, I have no idea how I responded. I just remember the internal shock as my mind registered his statement.

The conversation ended a few minutes later and the family went on its way, but I think about that brief interaction at least once a month. The Defense and Security branch of iRobot had a policy to never create armed robots, so in my head, I always knew that the products we made were protecting the lives of American troops. However, it is very different to know something in abstract than it is to have the result standing in front of you. Sure, the man I spoke with was not directly impacted by our robots, but how many like him were? What about his wife? How many spouses did not have to mourn the death of their loved one because a robot had been destroyed by an IED rather than a human being? And he had a young child! Did some of his peers also have small children, children that would grow up fatherless if our machines were not in use?

I never learned the answers to those questions, and I never spoke to that man again, but the conversation served as a watershed moment for me. Mechanical engineering is an extremely broad field, and I hadn’t settled on exactly what I wanted to do with the skills I had learned. That moment decided it for me: I wanted to work on robots that helped others in a significant way.

Several years later, I am happy to say that I have achieved that goal. I am currently the Lab Automation and Process Development Engineer at a cancer diagnostics firm. In most cases, lung cancer can only be monitored through a biopsy, which involves surgically removing lung tissue and analyzing it. Close monitoring of cancer progression is extremely important to determine medication, but as the health of a cancer patient deteriorates, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to undergo the procedure. With this in mind, the bioscientists at my company have developed a chemical process, called an assay, that can diagnose cancer through the patient’s blood, trading an invasive surgery for a simple blood draw. The simplicity of the blood retrieval also means it can be done more often and provide oncologists with the knowledge they need to fine-tune a patient’s medication.

Prior to this job, I hadn’t touched anything even resembling bioscience since a biology course in high school, so I do not take part in creating the assays. Instead, my responsibilities come after the they have been designed, tested, and validated: I teach robots to perform them. My company currently receives blood samples from all over the country to be processed in our labs. While this is excellent news for the company and for those patients, it puts a heavy workload on the qualified people who process the assay. Having some of the work done by liquid-handling robots gives them the opportunity to advance other projects, such as researching more life-changing cancer diagnostics tools. It is an extremely rewarding task and one that I am proud to do.

Hamilton STAR Liquid Handling Robot - Photo Credit Hamilton Company

However, what I have discovered over my years as a robotics engineer is that not everyone feels the same way. While my current occupation uses robots to help with cancer, something that is indisputably a good thing, I have spoken with many who have hesitance or outright antipathy towards robots. Some have just seen too many movies like I, Robot and 2001: A Space Odyssey and are nervous about robots in general, but most have a more concrete, understandable reason for disliking the idea of robotics: industrial automation and its devastating effect on American families.

It’s no secret that job losses to robots and machines have been steadily increasing for years. An August 2020 Time article cited a study on the subject, indicating that 400,000 United States factory jobs were lost to automation between 1990 and 2007. Every individual included in that number lost income, health insurance, and maybe even retirement planning because a corporation decided to use a machine.

When I begin thinking about those numbers, I find myself reflecting on the thesis project I did for my master’s degree, where I transformed a standard RC car into a self-driving vehicle. It is difficult to properly capture in words the joy and exhilaration of watching something I created literally come to life, but those feelings lie in stark contrast to the anger I feel from seeing how my industry treats humans in the real world. How can something that gives me happiness cause so much anguish for my fellow citizens?

The small autonomous vehicle I created for my thesis project on a custom track

It is partially for this reason that I was never completely fulfilled at my previous job. Before working for my current company, I was employed at one that produced and sold assembly line robotics, mainly designed for packaging and processing products on a large scale. The day-to-day work was good and I absolutely loved my coworkers, but at the end of the day, I knew all I was doing was helping fast companies go faster. And I think the reason this bothered me had little to do with the fact that people were being replaced with machines. Instead, it was about the system that led to this issue in the first place.

The jobs for which those robots were designed are dull and repetitive. They involve picking an item off one conveyer belt and moving it to another or repeating the same application process over and over again. One of the common measurements we used to quantify the speed of those robots was parts per minute (ppm), which defined the number of parts a robot could pick up and move within one minute. It was not uncommon for some of the robots to operate at 50 or 60 ppm, if not more. This means that in a standard eight-hour workday, a single robot had the potential to move around 24,000 parts.

That’s an impressive number, but I want to look at it from a different angle. If the robot was not performing that task, then a human would be expected to do it. And those 24,000 parts would need to be moved by them instead.

To me, that seems inhumane.

I want to be careful how I phrase this, because I recognize that many, many people have jobs at risk of being lost to automation. And I am sure some of those people enjoy their jobs. But the fact is that human beings do not exist to move parts from one belt to another every day until we die. We exist to build, to invent, to be artistic and creative and pursue our passions. To be curious about the world, to think logically and to solve problems big and small. And the concept of automation could help more of us get there by doing some of the jobs we don’t want to do, giving us the freedom to chase what we want.

The Roomba is an excellent example. It vacuums a room in a seemingly random pattern, often crossing over its own path and missing some areas. In addition, it is slow; it takes about thirty minutes to clean a room that a human being could vacuum in ten. But the intent of the Roomba isn’t to clean better than a person, but to give that person more time. In those thirty minutes, you can do whatever you want. If you’re a writer you can write, or if you’re an artist you can paint. You can even do another chore that you would ordinarily have to do later. And at the end of those thirty minutes, your room will still be clean. You may need to touch up a few areas that the Roomba missed, but in the end, you will have spent fewer minutes doing that task. You weren’t replaced; you were given the opportunity to do something for which you otherwise would not have had time.

So with that in mind, let’s return to my current company.

I love my job because I have an enormous amount of respect for my colleagues and we work well as a team. I love my job because every day, I get to play with robots while helping the future of cancer diagnostics. But most of all, I love my job because it is not an example of what automation is, but what automation could be. When our robots are functioning and doing what they are designed to do, our extremely talented scientists don’t need to spend their days moving chemicals around a lab. Instead, they can use their exceptional minds to do research, potentially changing the way cancer patients are treated for a generation.

We live in an increasingly corporate world where the work of our fellow citizens is often viewed as numbers on a spreadsheet, their hours of labor commodified and compared with machines to see which is better for an investor’s bottom line. But if we look closely, we can see that our world does not have to be that way. I love my job because it represents a future of automation that we have changed for the better.


About the Creator

Matt Spaziani

Robotics engineer by day and writer, musician, and gamer by night.

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