Two Belgian Hospitals Hire Robots as Medical Receptionists


Pepper isn’t your typical hospital employee—mainly because he's a robot that's programmed to interact with humans and “understand” their emotions. Created by Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank, Pepper made his public debut in Japan in late 2014. Over the past two years, various Pepper models have worked in cell phone stores, banks, train stations, and even a Pizza Hut. Now, two of the friendly machines have become staff members at two hospitals in Belgium. Pepper is reportedly the first robot in the world to be used to greet people in a medical setting, The Guardian writes.

At the CHR Citadelle hospital in Liege, Pepper will assist patients in the reception area. At AZ Damiaan in Ostend, he’ll introduce visitors and give directions and information.

Pepper is a sleek, 4-foot tall white robot that can wave, nod, and reportedly detect our moods via built-in cameras and sensors. (Some people, including robotics expert Noel Sharkey, think this claim is a tad exaggerated. Pepper “is good at conveying human-like gestures, but the way it detects human emotions might be over-hyped,” Sharkey, an emeritus professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield in England, told the BBC.)

Pepper is also equipped with voice-recognition technology, which lets him converse directly with others, robot-to-human, in 20 different languages. He can tell if he’s speaking with a man, woman, or child. If direct conversation doesn’t cut it, a 10.1-inch touch screen on his chest can help facilitate communication.

Pepper isn’t a cheap employee. A base model of the bot costs $1850, but the hospitals reportedly spent $34,000 for a new, tricked-out version of Pepper with specially designed software from Belgian firm Zora Bots and access to the hospitals’ help desks.

Officials at CHR Citadelle and AZ Damiaan seem to think the multi-lingual machine is worth it. Both hospitals already use one of Softbank’s smaller robots, called Nao robots, in their pediatric and geriatric wards. There, the tiny bots help patients exercise, keep them company, and alleviate their fears of surgery.

Over time, the hospitals hope to adopt additional futuristic technologies. "It's about architecture, future rooms and robots, the ones we already have and the ones we're going to get," CHR Citadelle's communication director Nathalie Evrard told the BBC.

Check out a Pepper robot in action via the video above, filmed at Devoxx Belgium 2015.

[h/t The Guardian]

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