The coronavirus robot has one thing going for it: out of all the androids that have asked me if I’ve experienced diarrhea in the past seven days, this one is definitely the most swole. Sadly, the machine (called Promobot) is also a total himbo—ultimately just a laggy iPad attached to a large, imposingly muscular metal chassis. Its LED-lit face gazes upward at the user, vacant and friendly, like a super-ripped puppy that is really trying its best to help.
On Wednesday, Promobot’s creators placed the rudimentary droid in the heart of the American nightmare (Times Square) in order to “check for common Coronavirus symptoms and advice to visit a doctor through an interactive survey,” according to a poorly-worded press release. Promobot will indeed tell you to go to a doctor, and that’s about it.
The beefcake robot (or rather, the iPad with a very large robot-shaped protective case) does not actually do any biometric or biometric-adjacent testing or screening. Instead, it’s intended to be more of a mascot for chilling out—its makers said it’s there to encourage people to “stay calm” and “ensure people are not too preoccupied and avoid panic in the media.” Avoiding panic is an admirable goal, as influenza is demonstrably far more likely to cause fatalities in the United States, but I’m not sure that 1) this robot can really combat rapidly-spreading panic across social media and 2) the headlines surrounding the bot are almost certainly contributing to the panic.
It asks a few questions (official website says five, but I only counted four) in a curt, posh Received Pronunciation:
- Have you had a fever in the past three days?
- Do you have a dry cough?
- Do you have a headache or feel tired/weak/fatigued?
- Have you experienced nausea or diarrhea in the past 7 days?
Promobot could not comprehend any of my answers to its questions. It could not queue up the correct voiceover that matched up with the text on the screen. Yes/no prompts seemed to cause Promobot deep distress.
I answered ‘yes’ to all four questions to see what would happen. No alarms or flashing lights, just a dialog box that recommended that I go to a doctor. Answering ‘no’ unlocks a special speech:
(It is worth noting that it is unclear if the novel coronavirus can be spread before carriers develop symptoms. It is also worth noting that the second time Promobot asked me about diarrhea, it fucking winked at me.)
Unlike many of Times Square’s permanent residents (the Statue of Liberty performers, the mixtape hucksters, the Elmos that ruin childhoods), Promobot is not aggressively tricking tourists out of their money. It just doesn’t do much of anything at all.
Look, I have some sympathy for Promobot: cute-but-dumb used to be my type back in the day, and keeping up with questions about fevers and stuff is hard work. But my sympathy runs out when a bot’s only apparent purpose is to spread illness.
While Promobot is ultimately just asking a series of questions that you could look up on your phone on WebMD or the CDC’s website, the real drawback is that you’re sharing a touchscreen with every single tourist who uses the device. I looked around and there were no Lysol wipes or hand sanitizer dispensers to be found, and seemingly no attempt to wipe down the touchscreen surface that hundreds of people had poked that day. This didn’t disturb me too much—being in Times Square means inhaling Times Square air, which is a cornucopia of pollution, tourist germs, and shit particles: rat, pigeon, human.
But, given that it’s flu season, I definitely washed my hands as soon as I returned to the office.