New view for foe of robots

07/14/2008 12:00 AM

07/15/2008 5:43 PM

At 83, Dr. Francis Robicsek has traveled the world and seen a lot of things.

He's dug for Mayan ruins in Colombia. He's dined with the president of Guatemala. And he's been bitten by a dog while making rounds in a Honduran hospital.

But a recent encounter in Hungary may have given him the biggest surprise of all.

One day while walking down a corridor at the Hungarian Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in Budapest, Robicsek came face to face with an unusual machine.

About 15 inches tall with four wheels and a flashing red light, it could have been a self-propelled vacuum cleaner.

Or a flattened truck.

Or the biggest bathroom scale in the world.

As Robicsek approached, the vehicle actually spoke, in Hungarian, to the tall U.S. doctor in its path:

“Please get out of my way,” it said. “I have to get to my elevator.”

Unable to stop himself, Robicsek followed as the silver and black TransCar Automatic Guided Vehicle passed and made a sharp left turn into a large room with several large steel containers.

Each container sat atop a four-wheeled platform.

The robot drove itself under one of the platforms, attached itself to the container and drove off, with the container sitting on top.

At a special door, the vehicle called its own elevator, got on board and then deposited its cargo on another floor.

Another day in the hospital, Robicsek watched as two robots met in the hallway.

Again, in Hungarian, one said, “Please get out of my way.”

Smoothly and quickly, the other one moved aside.

“Thank you,” the first one replied.

The robots, made by a Swiss company called Swisslog, deliver food and other supplies around the hospital. Robicsek said he never saw a human carrying any such supplies while he was there as a visiting professor.

In the past, Robicsek has criticized the use of robots to perform heart surgery. He has even editorialized against it in the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery.

But, outside the operating room, the Hungarian-speaking robots made a convert of the Hungarian-born doctor.

“This is a robot I like,” Robicsek said. “Robots are good in the hospital for something anyhow.”

About Karen Garloch

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@kgarloch

Karen Garloch writes on Health for The Charlotte Observer. Her column appears each Tuesday. Email Karen at kgarloch@charlotteobserver.com or call her at 704-358-5078

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