Aug 14 2014 9:00am

No Longer Locked In: How Real-Life Robots Help Kids

VGo Verizon

John Scalzi’s latest novel, Lock In, builds from a deeply relatable premise: Fifteen years from now, a virus knows as Haden’s Syndrome sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. 4% suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1% find themselves “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

When the book begins, society has adjusted to the crisis, and life has, for the most part, gone back to normal. Those who are locked in spend most of their time in the Agora (a virtual reality designed specially for Haden’s patients), but they can also use “threeps,” highly maneuverable robots that can interact with non-Hadens. And then there are the Integrators, healthy humans that can allow Hadens to jack into their minds and use them for trips to theme parks, bacon cheeseburger feasts, and… other activities where a threep won’t be optimal.

While we’re not quite ready for Integrators yet, a form of threep is already in use, going a long way toward helping some children live better lives.

There are obviously lots of uses for remote presence robots—renting a robot to tour the Louvre would be a bit cheaper than buying a ticket to Paris. Working from home via a robot would be much more immersive that just trying to keep up on GChat. The MIT Tech Review spent some time testing a VGo in 2011, and while the experience was a little bumpy, they spoke to the more immersive nature of the robot. “If these robots become more common in the workplace, we’ll have to learn a new set of social skills, reserved for our colleagues that are machines, rather than people.” (This actually becomes a bit of a plot point in Lock In...)

A Russian tech company, Wicron, has developed the Webot, and put together a video demonstrating some of the uses. Although I have to admit, the moment when the “remote superior” lurks behind his employee to check on his internet activity is frankly, terrifying. Not that we here at would ever look at anything non-work-related on the internet...

The largest U.S.-based provider or remote presences is a New Hampshire company called VGo. After pitching their robots for corporate and medical use, they found a new market: schoolchildren. As in Scalzi’s novel, using robots can help chronically ill children lead much more normal lives. Verizon partnered with VGo for an ad during last year’s Superbowl that highlighting this shift towards normalizing robots and telepresence.

Lyndon Baty (a sci-fi name if I ever heard one) is currently going to school via robot. He was born with autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease, a type of genetic condition that causes cysts on the kidneys. After a kidney transplant, he was able to go to school and play outside, but when his body rejected the kidney in eighth grade, daily school became impossible for him. He also started a series of long hospital stays to strengthen his immune system. When it came time for him to start high school, his family was able to connect him with a VGo robot that he can control remotely from home in order to travel the campus and get to class.

It’s the perfect way to go to high school, and even includes some advantages—Lyndon and other VGo users can use the robot’s camera to zoom in on the board, or turn the volume up to enhance his or her voice when needed. But what about Lyndon’s classmates? Even the most videogame-loving teen can be a snarky beast when confronted with something new, like for instance, a classmate who’s also a robot. So what I found really wonderful in researching these stories was that, across the board, at every age level, the kids were totally accepting. As The Dallas Observer reported:

“On the day after winter break, out [the VGo] rolled, into the hallway to find a crowd waiting for it. The kids gathered around, to welcome Lyndon back and to see the robot in action. A boy named Austin was one of the first to approach. “Lyndon,” he said, hugging the little bot. “I’ve missed you so much!”

When Briley Hostas was kept home due to leukemia, she also used a VGo, and her classmates accepted it, referring to the robot as “awesome” and saying “When we first got it I was so excited because I was able to see our friend on it.”

Christian Beasley VGo

Cristian Beasley’s robot became so much a part of the class that when the class had a fire drill, his friends insisted the Vgo had to come outside with them. And Miranda Garcia has fully embraced the tech, saying, “I am a robot, that’s the fun thing. It’s like I am in a whole different dimension. It’s good and it helps me a lot when I am too sick to go to school. I feel a part of the class.”

The best thing, though? The very best thing? Lexie Kinder wasn’t satisfied with any old robot, so she and her mom transformed her VGo into a princess robot.

John W. Adkisson for The New York Times Princess Robot VGo

Leah Schnelbach loves living in the future! Sometimes, she uses technology to connect with other humans.

Walker White
1. Walker
4% suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history
Recent history. The Black Death (> 20% of world population) and Spanish Flu (3-5% world population) would like a word.
Michael Carlisle
2. DrM
@1, I agree with you, but a note on relative vs absolute sizes:
Black Death was mid 14th C, knocking out, as an upper bound, around 200 million.
Spanish Flu, early 20th C, has an upper bound death count of about 100 million.
The expected population about 15 years from now (2030) is approx 8.3 billion, so 4% would be 332 million. Absolute numbers-wise, beats 'em both combined.
Tomayto, tomahto.
Rancho Unicorno
3. Rancho Unicorno
Not sure what the cost is, but I'd love to see a handful of these deployed to every school in our district. Kids that have to be out of school for whatever reason could still attend, I don't see why the robots couldn't be shared for short term absences (<2 days) and assigned to students for longer absences. To keep costs under control, there could be a time limit on usage (e.g. 4 weeks). At that point, the student could work to get one or other solutions considered - otherwise you risk having the district pay for more than can be afforded.
Bruce Arthurs
4. bruce-arthurs
"the moment when the “remote superior” lurks behind his employee to check on his internet activity is frankly, terrifying."

Heh. These are mobile, but I spent a while working security for an office/shopping complex that had over 150 cameras watching the property and very few blind spots. One of the cameras was located in the ceiling of the monitor room, so on the nights I pulled monitor-watching duty it was actually possible to zoom in on the back of my own head. ("Is that a... thin spot? No-o-o-o-o!")

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