COLUMN: Sally the salad robot turns out to be surprisingly average


Sally the salad robot is the first fresh-food robot in the world to be in a hospital. People at IU Health Bloomington Hospital can have Sally make a custom salad for $6.99.  Ty Vinson Buy Photos

The IU Bloomington Hospital has a new staff member on deck who goes by the name of Sally. She’s a robot from Chowbotics that makes, well, salads.

As a computer science major, I decided to pay Sally a visit to see what the robot could do.

The salad she made was heftier than I had anticipated. In fact, I almost thought the bowl would overflow. I probably could not have done a better job myself in terms of quantity.

In terms of quality, the salad was stunningly average. But it was the experience of having the salad made that really got me thinking about robots in hospitals.

Let me describe what the Sally robot was like.

While I was expecting something out of "Wall-E," Sally looks at first glance like an elite vending machine about the size of a minifridge, and nothing more.

On closer inspection, however, I realized that Sally is not the average Doritos spiral dispenser. Through the glass window into her soul, one can see a variety of vertical rectangular tubes hanging from a wheel, each containing its own ingredient.

The price of a salad is approximately seven dollars. Is it worth it? I swiped my debit card to find out.

The robot offers an array of preprogrammed salads, but I customized my own to see if I could trip up the machine. Shredded carrots, grape tomatoes, crispy onion? Count me in.

After choosing six toppings in total, I placed my bowl in the slot and waited for action. Sally began with the mixed greens by rotating a fan back and forth at the bottom of the corresponding tube, allowing the leaves to fall out little by little. Repeat for every topping.

It’s pretty entertaining to watch, so kudos to Chowbotics for making the robot transparent.

Of course, I’ll admit that some croutons did spill on the floor, a cute mistake that got a chuckle out of me.

As I sat to eat, I began wondering why the price for such a normal salad was somewhat steep. I had thought that it ought to be lower since the human element has been removed, but then I realized that you in fact still need a human to replenish the robot when it runs out of ingredients.

In that case, why have a robot at all?

What the hospital has told the IDS is that the robot offers more than other alternatives. For one, it is available 24 hours in a day. This is convenient especially for overnight patients and visitors.

Secondly, the robot is a fresher choice than vending machine food while being equally compact in size.

Finally, the robot protects its ingredients from germs in the environment while also preventing cross-contamination between ingredients.

Therefore, although the Sally robot might not be a textbook example of innovation, it does seem to justify its own existence. She offers healthy food without the nastiness of an actual salad bar.

This brings up a good general rule for robots in hospitals: Hospital robots should provide immediate advantages without introducing new problems. In other words, they should only be used when they are better than their alternatives.

Certainly, robots should not be designed to totally replace human professionals because the humanness of hospitals is important to the healing and treatment of patients. Instead, hospital robots should support those professionals so that they can help more patients quicker with no decline in quality.

The more conceptual, creative elements of treating patients would remain up to human doctors. The aid of robots would improve their decisions and allow them more face-to-face contact with patients.

I can picture a world in which robots improve patient care in places where human medical staff is scarce. Such robots could help administer shots in a safe and consistent way, assist nurses with checkups, transport medical supplies throughout the hospital and maybe even provide CPR and defibrillation in an emergency.

All things considered, although her salads are a little expensive, Sally is a small step forward toward that ideal world.

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