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Does the world’s first vaccine robot even make sense? We ask a nurse

Diane Davis

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By now, you may have seen the YouTube video. A robot called the Cobi pokes its head out of a box like a cyborg ostrich. Over the course of roughly 30 seconds, it eases its head forward, poking its nose into an arm. This nose is actually a needle-free injector delivering a vaccine to muscle tissue, automatically.

Developed by the Canadian startup Cobionix, the company claims this robot is the world’s first autonomous injector—a vaxbot, if you will.

For now, it’s just a working prototype that could take two years or longer to come to market, and vaccinations are just one of many tasks it could potentially perform, according to cofounder Tim Lasswell, who lent his arm for the video.

The question is not whether this technology is remarkable. The question is, Is Cobi actually designed to replace a healthcare professional—even for a task as seemingly simple as jabbing a vaccine?

“My initial thoughts were, I don’t even trust my Roomba!” Melody Butler, executive director for the nonprofit Nurses Who Vaccinate, says with a laugh. A registered nurse herself, she quickly clarifies that the criticism is not a critique of robotics, but of the automation of robots inside a medical facility.

“We do use a lot of robotics in healthcare. We have the Da Vinci robot surgeons that use amazing technology,” says Butler. “However, there’s a person behind that robot at all times. It’s not automated. You have the clinical skills and experience a person is able to provide.”

Meanwhile, Cobionix is interested in automating patient care, but through long-term software iteration of their hardware platform. “Similar to Tesla, it has all the self-driving autonomous hardware on board, but the cars are not self-driving yet,” says Lasswell. He says the Cobi—which uses AI and 3D vision to see patients—could one day perform ultrasounds, blood draws, and biopsies, swapping out its tools for each job much like a doctor or a nurse. “Our initial robotic platform is probably overkill in terms of what we’d need from hardware and software to give vaccines.”

[Photo: courtesy Cobionix]

In theory. Though as Butler explains, automation in medicine is trickier than mere mechanics. A person provides patient comfort—soft skills that include answering questions and concerns—as well as constant clinical assessment that treatment is going all right.

“Not every person is the same. Maybe the technology will be there, and is better than the human eye at assessing someone’s deltoid muscle.” But for now, she doubts that’s the case.

“You have to remember, with vaccines, the most common adverse reaction is from improper technique,” says Butler. That reaction is known as Shoulder Injury Related to Vaccine Administration (SIRVA), and while rare, it can occur if a shot is given too high in the arm, damaging tissue in a way that causes pain and mobility loss long term. Specifically because of issues like SIRVA, even medical professionals must take an hour-long refresher course if they’ve stopped giving vaccines for more than a year before picking the practice back up, then demonstrate their skills to a manager.

That said, Butler is actually concerned less about the robot’s ability to administer a vaccine than a patient’s own familiarity with the machine to receive that vaccine safely. She points out that patients would need to be educated to receive a vaccination from this robot—which is actually a CDC-recommendation for all vaccines. Perhaps that could be through a chat with a doctor or a video explainer, she muses, but Butler was skeptical that the existing user interface would be enough to ensure that every patient could smoothly receive a vaccine from a robot on the first try. (Keep in mind the importance of reliable, automated care at scale—3 billion people on earth have been vaccinated against COVID-19 alone. If one out of a hundred people encounter a problem, that’s 30 million people.)

[Image: courtesy Cobionix]

“Right now it’s really dependent on the user to allow the robot to administer the vaccine to them,” says Butler. “This would be fine for someone who is trained, and gets regular shots. But I’d be hesitant to use this now for a mass vaccination campaign because each individual would require education [first].”

The challenges of administering vaccines only grows when vaccinating a child. Two-thirds of children are afraid of needles, and at CVS, the pharmacists and technicians who administer vaccines are trained to serve as an emotional support as much as a vaccinator.

“Our teams are engaged with children during the vaccination process, talking with the child, making jokes, and trying to keep them distracted and calm,” says a CVS spokesperson. “Our teams are focused on allowing the child to make choices, such as what Band-Aid they would like and which arm they want to use for the vaccination.”

To be fair, Cobionix is taking many of these issues into consideration when developing its platform. They specifically fitted the Cobi with a needle-free technology because they knew a robot holding a needle would be terrifying. (Have you ever seen a robot do a nasal swab? Shivers.) And while they declined to make any attempt to hide the robot itself—perhaps covering it with some sort of facade to make it look like a vaccine kiosk rather than a vaccine robot—they did approach the industrial design with comfort in mind.

“For this product, we decided to go with the shape of a robotic arm that’s smooth, and [even] cute, [using] rounded joints, and a shiny white appearance,” says cofounder Nima Zamani. “We tried to make it as least-threatening as possible. But over time people will get more accepting of robotic arms.”

However, in the near term, Butler suggests a robot like Cobi doesn’t even need to give vaccines to be incredibly helpful in a healthcare context. Vaccines like Pfizer have to be thawed, mixed, and diluted before administration—a careful preparation practiced by healthcare providers that you might never realize goes into each shot. This behind-the-scenes work is ripe for automation to give time back to staff.

“That’s a technology that could be used right now!” says Butler.


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MIT Hobby Shop rebuilt | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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wood desk shaped like a wavy lasagna noodle

Smidt says she loves the lathe but is also very fond of a small tool called a French curve scraper, which she used to sand the curves of the desk that was her ambitious first project in the shop. The piece, which Smidt calls her “noodle desk,” consists of a butcher block top that S-curves to the floor for support. It’s made of reclaimed maple from MIT’s basketball court renovation, which the shop had salvaged. “It’s always such a pleasure to use the perfect hand tool,” she says. (Find a link to photos and step-by-step instructions for building the desk here.)

BLONDEGEEK VIA INSTRUCTABLES

Although Smidt was an undergraduate at MIT, she didn’t discover the Hobby Shop until she joined the faculty in September 2021 (after earning her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley). “For that first year, the Hobby Shop was pretty instrumental in my maintaining sanity,” she says, noting that MIT had just begun to relax its early covid restrictions. “I think I’ve now used just about every machine.”

Novices and experts

More than a workspace, the Hobby Shop is also a community—one where people from all corners of MIT can come together to share camaraderie as well as tips and techniques. “I’ve met some of my favorite people from MIT at the Hobby Shop,” Smidt says.

Fischman even owes his marriage to the shop. Thanks to a referral from a contact there, he wound up with a 25-year part-time gig teaching two night classes in woodworking at the Boston Center for Adult Education—where he met his wife. “That was a connection the shop made possible,” he says. 

Novices are always welcome, and the shop’s staff—director Hayami Arakawa and technical instructor Coby Unger—are always willing to provide expert guidance. “It’s encouraged to ask questions,” Smidt says. Classes and workshops provide more formal training on complex machines or in unusual crafts, such as steam-bending wood.

Projects undertaken in the shop run the gamut from simple cutting boards to fine furniture. Fischman says the piece he’s most proud of is a curved-edge walnut console table with hand-planed, tapered octagonal legs. But not everyone makes furniture. “We had a guy who came in to build a machine to put the caps on his yogurt containers,” Fischman says. “We’ve had harpsichords built in the shop, canoes built in the shop. It goes on and on.”

Smidt adds, “It’s really inspiring to see what other people are making.”

Now, nearly 50 years after his bowl was spotlighted in Fine Woodworking, Fischman says he still finds joy at the Hobby Shop. “The shop is fun,” he says. “I think that’s an important aspect of it.”

Another, he says, is knowing that he has created pieces that will live on. “I’m 76. I think about legacy a bit,” he says. “The woodworking gifts that I gave to people that they cherish now are part of my legacy.” 

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The citizen scientists chronicling life at a neglected but vital Mexican river

Diane Davis

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Since the fall of 2021, Viaje al Microcosmos has organized walks on the river to encourage the general public to explore the space and make new connections with this misunderstood body of water. In the last few years, participants have created their own microscopes to study water samples they’ve collected; created an immersive art installation to showcase the species that live on the river; produced a podcast; developed a template to help people document water quality; contributed to the Río Santa Catarina’s Wikipedia page; and more. Each activity helps build a community of city dwellers who believe the river is a natural resource worth protecting. The effort seems only more urgent against the backdrop of a regional drought, rising temperatures, and a government that continues to place environmental issues on the back burner. 

A woman peeks into a microscope at Viaje al Microcosmos’s stand at the citizen science event.

LORENA RíOS

Viaje al Microcosmos’s goal is multifaceted and ambitious. The activists want to build a community of citizen scientists that pushes back against the belief that the river is for sale. They want to produce information about the river that can shape public policy and aid in its preservation. But perhaps most important, they want to instill the revolutionary thought that the Santa Catarina River can, in fact, be just that: a river. 

Lorena Ríos is a freelance journalist based in Monterrey, Mexico.

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What Luddites can teach us about resisting an automated future

Diane Davis

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A story in comic format. In this first panel, two figures in silhouette look out at a modern city skyline.  The text reads, "The future is here already. AI art has arrived. Simply write a prompt..."

A person's smiling headshot being uploaded.  The text reads, "Or allow a company unrestricted access to your likeness..."
The headshot from the previous panel with distroted features and a wavy new background. The text reads, "...And ta-da! Some absolutely serviceable hotel lobby art. But calling this 'AI art' uncritically buys into the AI hype machine."
Two people look at the blank space where the framed picture of a flower has been stolen by a giant robot hand. The text reads, "Algorithmically generated art theft" might be more accurate.

Two panels. In the first, a scrabbly line resembling a signature. The text reads, "Machine-learning software is "taught" by feeding it existing art without consent, credit, or compensation. To the extent that mangled signature remnants remain visible on AI art." In the second, the text reads, "Artists have begun to push back." over the image of protestors led by Matthew Butterick, co-counsel in a class action lawsuit brought against AI art by artists, who says, "Everybody would creates for a living should be in code red."
The text reads, "A common refrain from defenders of AI art has been to label these naysayers:"  above multiple speech bubbles saying "Luddite!" "Luddites!" and "Luddism!"
Text across the top continues, "...a term synonymous with technophobia, anti-progress, and reactionism. It's even used to describe being hapless with new tech." A group of people eating dinner together, and one person is saying, "Oh, I can't use TikTok! I'm such a Luddite!" The below the image reads, "In truth, the Luddites were skilled with machines. They were simply fighting for better worker rights."

A man in a cravat holding a plume at his writing desk smiles, while behind in shadow are two women at textile machines. The text reads, "In 1799, the British government passed legislation that prohibited trader unions and collective bargaining. Mill owners introduced more machines in their factories, reducing wages."
A man with his shirtsleeves rolled up, raising a sledgehammer.  The text reads, "And so, in 1811, after years of frustrating negotiations, a spate of coordinated attacks on mill frameworks erupted across the United Kingdom, led by "King Ned Ludd."

Sheets of paper flutter down to a gallows in the foreground as soldiers with bayonets raised corral a crowd of civilians behind.  The text reads, "But them, 14000 soldiers were sent to protect the mills and quash riots. New legislation made frame breaking a capital offense. Eventually, key Luddite organizers were identified, arrested and executed.
Lord Byron reciting from "Song for the Luddites" says with his eyes closed, "This is the dew, which the tree shall renew Of Liberty, planted by Ludd!"  The text above reads, "Yet the movement lived on. Outbreaks of machine breaking continued for years in the UK and beyond.
A woman smashing something with a sledgehammer. The text reads, "In 1837, a spinning jenny in Chalabre, France was destroyed by workers. The women workers 'made themselves conspicuous by their fury and violence.' From local newspaper, L'Aude."

The text reads, "In the 1870s, English textile designer, author, and socialist William Morris began taking an interest in the production process of his designs. He was disgusted by the poor living conditions of workers and the pollution caused by the textile industry." William Morris in profile saying, "Why does a reasonable man use a machine? Surely to save his labour. Under capitalism, machines were primarily used to increase production, thereby increasing the worker's drudgery."
The text reads, "People have been making similar arguments against AI art." A tweet from CatBastardQuinn, @QuinnCat13 reads, "We could automate menial jobs so people have time to make art and music but apparently we'd rather automate art and music so people have time for menial jobs."
An office worker at a laptop with face in hands and an Amazon worker in a pile of shipping boxes. The text reads" Likewise, Morris was interested in what he called 'worthy work'.' He wanted people to take pleasure in their work rather than 'mere toiling to live that we may live to toil.'"
The text reads, "He understood that machines were only as progressive as the people who used them." Morris facing us from a field of app notifications, says "[An unfree man is a] slave to machinery; the new machine MUST be invented, and when invented he MUST - I will not say use it, but be used by it whether he likes it or not."
Frederick Taylor overseeing factory workers standing around machines with a stopwatch.  The text reads, "In America, mechanical engineer Frederick W. Taylor began using what he called the 'Scientific Management' in his factories. Taylor timed each worker's every movement, breaking down their work into a set of discrete tasks. Then demanded workers speed them up."
The text reads, "Taylorism, as it became known, was less a science than a political ideology concerned with remolding workers into pliant subjects. Taylor faces us to say, "A complete mental revolution on the part of the workingman...toward their work, toward their fellow men, and toward their employers."
The text reads, "But the spirit of Luddism lived on. Seemingly out of nowhere, there was a rash of mechanical breakdowns at Taylor's factories." An angry Taylor tells us, "These men were deliberately breaking their machines." while two men stand behind him shrugging and smiling slightly while a plume a smoke rises from an unseen area.

A cover of a  book entitled, "Sabotage: Its History, Philosophy & Function by author Walker C Smith. shows a black cat climbing atop a bag of money.  The text reads, "Despite setbacks and intervention from Congress, Taylorism spread. The Industrial Workers of the World responded by publishing two tracts on the topic of sabotage in 1913. 'The aim is to hit the employer in his vital spot, his heart and soul, in other words, his pocketbook.;"
Hands reach to an assembly line where the words "Automation - as it was later dubbed by Delmar Harder, vice president of Ford Motor Company, in 1947 - continued unabated." repeat on each panel of the conveyor.

The text reads, "The legacy of the Luddites lived on in the latter half of the 20th century. Confined to the lowest-paying jobs, black workers were the first to be targeted by the midcentury push for automation.  Robert L. Allen quotes from his book, Black Awakening in Capitalist America (1969) "Not only is the economic situation of the masses of blacks grim, but the prospects are that it will not improve, rather it will deteriorate. This is due partly to the unregulated impact of automation."
The text reads, "The Black Panthers were also quick to recognize <a href=technology and automation were not politically neutral." Huey Newton, cofounder of the Black Panther Party says from a podium, "If the ruling circle remains in power it seems to me that capitalists will continue to develop their technological machinery because they are not interested in the people…Every worker is in jeopardy because of the ruling circle."” class=”wp-image-1088535″ />
A group of Black Panthers standing together.  The text reads, "The Black Panther Party's Ten Point Program was updated in 1972. 'People's community control of modern <a href=technology‘ was added to the demands for ‘land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace."” class=”wp-image-1088536″ />

A conveyor belt with a chart, titled "Overrepresentation of African Americans in 3 occupation categories with the highest expected displacement, %" The statistics are Office Support e.g. secretaries with a displacement rate of 36%, Food Services, e.g. fast-food cooks with a displacement rate of 35% and Production work e.g. machinists with a displacement rate of 34%. The text reads, "A 2019 McKinsey Global Intitute report found that: 'African Americans are overrepresented in occupations likely to be the most affected by automation.' And the 2030 outlook doesn't look much better."
A crowd of students holding a sign that says "STRIKE" and a button that says, "I am a human being: do not fold, spindle, or mutilate" The text reads, "The introduction of the computer in the 1970s only exacerbated growing tensions. Punch cards used in universities, similar to cards used for drafting recruits for Vietnam, were seen as a symbol of bureaucracy and alienation. Students burned, vandalized, and otherwise destroyed punch cards for course registration."
Lisa Gitelman, author of Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture (2008) says, "Many people simply stopped drawing distinctions between one card-enabled system and another. Whether the cards registered draftees or pupils, they helped 'the system.""
Men in a warroom facing a map. The text reads, "Vietnam had become the first computational war, bringing a shift toward strategies rooted in quantitative data collection and automated analysis."

A fighter plane with the name, "Tom Cat" on the side. The text reads, "Sensor arrays and unmanned drones became a big part of the war. An ongoing experiment with the intention of the eventual replacement of human pilots. American soldiers were sabotaging equipment, staging protests and refusing to fight. Automation of war as with the automation of industry, was a political strategy designed to, once again, reassert control over rebellious workers."
A person at the self-checkout frustrated by the machines error message which says, "Unexpected item in the bagging area!"  The text reads "Now, as more of our daily lives are automated, people are finding that it doesn't always make our lives easier."
The text reads, "In 2016, a study revealed that physicians spend two hours of computer work for every hour spent speaking with a patient face to face." Atul Gawande, surgeon and public health researcher tells us, "I've come to feel that a system that promised to increase my mastery over my work has, instead, increased my work's mastery over me."

The text above people using computers reads, "In the rush to claim success with new AI software, this invisible human work becomes even more insidious. Researcher Jathan Sadowski calls it 'Potemkin AI.'  Sadowski says to us, "There is a long list of services that purport to be powered by sophisticated software, but actually rely on humans acting like robots."
Writer and filmmaker Astra Taylor calls these modern-day Mechanical Turks an example of "fauxtomation" which she says "reinforces the idea that work has no value if it is unpaid and acclimates us to the idea that one day we won't be needed."
A sad person hold s a robot mask to their face. The text reads, "As a 2019 report by the think tank Data & Society concludes, 'Automated and AI technologies tend to mask the human labour that allows them to be fully integrated into a social context while profoundly changing the conditions and quality of labour that is at stake."

The text reads, "Opposition to 21st century tech can be found in unlikely places. Silicon Valley executives are restricting their own children's screen time and sending them to tech-free schools." Taewoo Kim, chief AI engineer at machine learning startup One Smart Lab, tells us from in front of a Waldorf school, "You can't put your face in a device and expect to develop a long-term attention span."
A bullet shaped robot outside near grass has sauce on it. The text reads, "In San Francisco, security robots sent to harass the homeless have been repeatedly assaulted, with one being covered in BBQ sauce and wrapped in tarp."
An autonomous vehicle with a broken window.  The text reads, "In Arizona, people are slashing the tires of driverless cars after Uber struck and killed a woman in Tempe." A quote from Douglas Rushkoff, author of Team Human (2019) reads, "People are lashing out justifiably. There's a growing sense that the giant corporations honing driverless technologies do not have our best interests at heart."
A pie chart with the words, "A pew research poll found that 85% of Americans favored the restriction of automation to only the most dangerous forms of work."

People standing around and looking at their cell phones. The text reads, "We're all living through an era in which we have become the product."  Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018) tells us, "The age of surveillance capitalism is a titanic struggle between capital and each one of us. It is a direct intervention into free will, an assault on human autonomy. To tune and herd and shape and push us in the direction that creates the highest probability of their business success. [There's no way] to dress this up as anything but behavioral modification."
A facial recognition target over the face of a Black person next to a hand pointing at the word "Error." The text reads, "Many are also drawing attention to the biases of software made by an almost entirely male, predominantly white workforce."  A quote from Timnit Gebru, cofounder of Black in AI says, "I'm worried about groupthink, insularity, and arrogance in the AI community, [...] If many are actively excluded from its creation, this <a href=technology will benefit a few while harming a great many."” class=”wp-image-1088552″ />
The text reads, "VPNs, the dark web, and plugins like RequestPolicy are arguably Luddite responses to new <a href=technology. Computer science students have already developed Glaze- a tool to prevent AI models from mimicking artist styles." Maxigas, in Resistance to the Current: The Dialectics of Hacking (2022) says, "A retrograde attempt to rewind web history: a Luddite machine that, as they say ‘breaks’ the essential mechanisms of websites."” class=”wp-image-1088553″ />

Gavin Mueller in Breaking Things at Work (2021) says, "Luddism contains a critical perspective on <a href=technology that pays particular attention to technology‘s relationship to the labor process and working conditions. In other words, it views technology not as neutral but as a site of struggle. Luddism rejects production for production’s sake: it is critical of ‘efficiency’ as an end goal."” class=”wp-image-1088554″ />
Above a person tearing a line chart, the text reads, "'Degrowth,' 'slow living,' 'quiet quitting,' and the 'I Do Not Dream of Labour' movements could all be described as forms of modern neo-Luddism."  Jason Hickel, author of Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World (2020)  says, "Lashed to the growth imperative, <a href=technology is used not to do the same amount of stuff in less time, but rather to do more stuff in the same amount of time."” class=”wp-image-1088555″ />

A man with a sledgehammer resting on his shoulder as hi looks out at the horizon. The text reads, "Questioning and resisting the worst excesses of <a href=technology isn’t antithetical to progress. If your concept of ‘progress’ doesn’t put people at the center of it, is it even progress? Maybe those of us who are apprehensive about AI art are Luddites. Maybe we should wear that badge with pride. Welcome to the future. Sabotage it."” class=”wp-image-1088556″ />

Tom Humberstone is a comic artist and illustrator based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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