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Still smoking? Maybe a robot on Buffalo's medical campus could help you quit

You've smoked for years. You know you should quit. Your doctor, relatives and friends have begged you to, to no avail.

But what if a robot zipping around the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus read you the riot act?

Maybe the robot could also pick up discarded cigarette butts and squirt water at people if they give it a hard time.

That's what Matthew K. Enstice, head of the BNMC Inc. nonprofit organization that oversees the 120-acre campus, is thinking about.

"This would be like a giant Roomba. It's like a Roomba that might look like a human," said Enstice, BNMC president and chief executive officer. "I don't know what they can do, but we've been in talks with people to figure out how to do it."

To some, it may sound a bit far out there. An internet search found no references to robots being used to help people quit smoking.

Joseph S. Baschnagel, chairman of the Rochester Institute of Technology's Health and Addictions Research Center, expressed some doubts about whether it would work.

Enstice acknowledged he first thought of it "half-seriously."

But he remains undeterred.

"I'm totally serious about this," said Enstice, who hatched the idea after a recent summer trip to San Francisco where he saw a guy walking behind a moving box, holding a remote control. "It was just walking down the street."

"What are you doing?" Enstice recalled asking the man. "I was thinking, either this guy has a bomb, or he's doing something really cool."

"He said, 'Oh, this is a robot,'" Enstice said. "He said he was testing it out because it was a part of a food delivery program. It did not look like a human robot. "

Though his robot idea is just in the conceptual stage, Enstice is hopeful it can lead to the real thing. He said he is in talks with a scientist at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center to see what could be designed.

"We're working with a professor at Roswell to figure out how you build this, and fund building a prototype of a robot going around the campus to work on smoking cessation," said Matthew Enstice, Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus CEO.  (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"We're working with a professor at Roswell to figure out how you build this, and fund building a prototype of a robot going around the campus to work on smoking cessation," Enstice said, declining to elaborate on who is involved or specifics necessary for it to happen. "We could see if we could program it to get out information on smoking cessation, talk to people, send a message. It could be one robot, maybe more. We don't know."

Enstice said perhaps a robot could distribute anti-smoking literature to people on the campus, which in 2012 declared itself a tobacco-free zone.

The campus spans a neighborhood stretching from Goodell Street to North Street, and from Michigan Avenue to Main Street. The smoke-free policy applies to all medical campus employees, visitors, patients, vendors and contractors on campus-owned properties.

"We are a tobacco-free campus, but it is a challenge to enforce" with so many employers, patients and visitors, said Kari Root Bonaro, BNMC  communications director.

People still smoke at the medical campus, with the Spirit of Life tree at the corner of High and Ellicott streets a favorite spot. Maybe a robot is the answer.

More and more, robots are finding their way into real-life situations to perform a wide variety of tasks.

Consider "Chip," the robot butler that has been delivering amenities such as towels, toothpaste, candy, cocktails and newspapers to hotel guests at the Westin Buffalo on Delaware Avenue since last March.

"He is alive and well, and serving guests," said Russ Papia, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. "It's going extremely well. He's hugely popular with our children, and is an attention-getter and a conversation starter."

Geared to the service industry, Papia said "Chip" is the only robot butler in the Westin Hotels globally and was the only one in a New York state hotel when he was launched last year. Docked at a charging station by the hotel front desk, "Chip" has been programmed with the layout of the hotel and knows where the guest rooms are.

"When we program him to deliver an amenity, within a few minutes, he is at the door," Papia said. "He calls them from outside the door, announces his presence, his top opens up and his amenity is waiting for you. And he goes on his merry way."

When it comes to the medical campus, some type of robot with a special purpose may work depending on its design, said a local expert on robotics.

"Every day-service robots, such as trash collecting and material moving units, are a growing industry, and there is an exciting momentum right now in their commercial development and deployment in various sectors all over the world," said Souma Chowdhury, a University at Buffalo assistant professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering, in an e-mail to The News.

However, he said the focus in academic research is "mostly on developing enabling new-generation technologies" for service robots that can learn new skills on the go, or perceive tasks without being exclusively instructed. Other examples include robots that work as a team as well as soft robots that can efficiently navigate different environments.

But can a robot help a person break such an addictive habit?

"From one perspective, it would make people think about their behavior. If they're trying to implement this between the hospitals, I think it would be a novelty," said Baschnagel, who is also chairman of the Psychology Department at Rochester Institute of Technology.

However, Baschnagel said that for a robot to help deter addictive behavior, it has to be around a person all the time.

In a medical setting, Baschnagel said the robot could provide counseling. "If someone is in a waiting room, the robot could go around and talk to people, asking, 'Hey, do you smoke?' It could take the place of the health provider asking the questions. It could help with screening and then provide that information to health care providers if it could identify the patient and add that to the records. That part certainly is not far-fetched."

"But drastically helping people to quit, might be stretching it a bit," he said.

Baschnagel is working with RIT students to design a mobile app aimed at helping people quit smoking. The app will "learn" a person's smoking behavior and then predict when a person might be about to smoke, and use that prediction to present some treatment "in the moment," he said. Baschnagel said he hopes the prototype, in the works for a year, will be ready by the end of summer.

"We really need 'just in time' treatment – something that intervenes just as you're about to place a cigarette in your mouth. A robot would work maybe at a person's home, saying, 'It looks like you want to grab a pack of cigarettes," he said. "It could interject (by saying) 'Here are some things you could do instead.'"

Still, that doesn't help smokers as they drive, sit in a bar or take a break at work, he said.

Still, Enstice is so pumped about the medical campus robot idea that he talked it up to local students in eighth grade and high school who were part of a pilot coding camp last summer on the campus.

"Some were on a robotics team. I jokingly said to them, 'Can you build me that robot to pick up cigarette butts and squirt water at people if they yell at you?'" he recalled. "They told their robotics coach, 'We love this idea. Can we build it?'"

How, if and when it might be built, and funded, is unknown for now.

"I don't know how long it takes to do something like this. This is an idea I just threw out there," Enstice said. "It's about figuring out what the business model is."


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