Tug, The Hospital Robot That Saves Lives

“The robot, I’m told, is on its way. Any minute now you’ll see it. We can track them, you know. There’s quite a few of them, so it’s only a matter of time. Any minute now. Ah, and here it is. Far down the hospital hall, double doors part to reveal the automaton… a white, rectangular machine about four feet tall… It’s not traveling on a track. It’s unleashed. It’s free.” M. Simon, Wired

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Tug autonomous medical robot, aka Tuggy McFresh - Josh Valcarcel:WIRED

Tug autonomous medical robot, aka Tuggy McFresh – Josh Valcarcel:WIRED

Excerpt: This Incredible Hospital Robot Is Saving Lives. By Matt Simon, Wired

“The robot, known as a Tug, edges closer and closer to me at the elbow of the L-shaped corridor and stops. It turns its wheels before accelerating through the turn, then suddenly halts once again. Josh, the photographer I’d brought along, is blocking its path, and by way of its sensors, the robot knows it. Tug, it seems, is programmed to avoid breaking knees. This hospital—the University of California, San Francisco’s Mission Bay wing—had opened four days before our visit. From the start, a fleet of Tugs has been shuffling around the halls. They deliver drugs and clean linens and meals while carting away medical waste and soiled sheets and trash. And by the time the fleet spins up to 25 robots on March 1, it’ll be the largest swarm of Tug medical automatons in the world, with each robot traveling an admirable average of 12 miles a day.

The staff still seems unsure what to make of Tug. Reactions I witness range from daaawing over its cuteness (the gentle bleeping, the slow-going, the politeness of stopping before pancaking people) to an unconvincingly restrained horror that the machines had suddenly become sentient… There are no beacons to guide the Tugs. Instead, they use maps in their brains to navigate. They’re communicating with the overall system through the hospital’s Wi-Fi, which also allows them to pick up fire alarms and get out of the way so carbon-based lifeforms can escape.

The roboticized kitchen of the UCSF Medical Center.  Josh Valcarcel:WIRED

The roboticized kitchen of the UCSF Medical Center. Josh Valcarcel:WIRED

It’ll only board an elevator that’s empty, pulling in and doing a three-point turn to flip 180 degrees before disembarking. After it’s made its deliveries to any number of floors—the fleet has delivered every meal since the hospital opened—it gathers empty trays and returns them to the kitchen, where it starts the whole process anew.

Credit: Josh Valcarcel:WIRED

Credit: Josh Valcarcel:WIRED

Asimov’s laws are good to keep in mind so we don’t end up with murderous hordes of machines, but we need to start talking more about the other side of things. How should we treat them? We need laws for human-robot interaction. For the moment, it seems that we’re supposed to just pretend they’re Grandma. That’s Law Number One. What the other laws will be, I’m not so sure. How will we treat AI that’s smart enough to pass as human, for instance? I mean, we’re already getting emotional about a box that rolls around hospitals. Maybe it’s too early to tell these things. Give me some time to think about it.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing,  and speaking.  Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) access to news article, and video clip.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

Stimulating background knowledge: Brainstorming

Directions: Place students in groups, ask students to think about what they already know about  the topic.  Next, have students look at the picture(s) in the text and generate ideas or words that may be connected to the article. Debrief as a class and list these ideas on the board.  Students can use this great Brainstorming chart from Kootation.comGreat Brainstorming chart from Kootation.com

II. While Reading Tasks

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. The whole circus is, in a word, bewildering.
  2. It’s really weird.
  3. The Tug that’d emerged had come from the kitchen.
  4. Other departments have their own monikers that include Tuggy and Little McTuggy.
  5. There are no beacons to guide the Tugs.
  6. We had to train on a lot of robot etiquette.
  7. We need laws for human-robot interaction.
  8. Most staffers have a strange nonreciprocal affection for Tugs.
  9. The Tug tango is a nice alliteration.
  10. Tug’s manufacturer, designed it to be comforting.
Freeology Chart

Freeology Chart

Reading Comprehension

True /False/NA-Statements

Directions: Review the following statements from the reading. If a statement is true they mark it T. If the statement is  not applicable, they mark it NA. If the statement is false they mark it F and provide the correct answer.

  1. The Tug robot is currently being used at a hospital in New York.
  2. Some of the Tug’s duties are to answer phones and play with children.
  3. The hospital staff still seems unsure what to make of Tug.
  4. Soon Tugs will be in all California hospitals.
  5. The robots use maps in their brains to navigate.
  6. Tugs communicate through with the hospital’s Wi-Fi system.
  7. Hospital staff knew how to interact with the robots.
  8. Tug’s manufacturer designed it to be comforting.
  9. There are Drug Tugs that securely deliver medications.
  10. According to the article, the robot  performed its duties correctly almost 85 percent of the time.

Grammar Focus

Structure and Usage

Directions: The following groups of sentences are from the article. One of the sentences in each group contains a grammatical error. Students are to identify the sentence (1, 2, or 3 ) from each group that contains the grammatical error.


  1. El Camino Hospital has been using the bots since 2009.
  2. Tugs have allowed them to avoid hiring additional staff.
  3. There’s an hotel opening this summer in Japan with robot receptionists.


  1. Walking around an hospital in scrubs is perfectly normal.
  2. I’ve spent the morning tailing an autonomous robot.
  3. Right now I envy the Tug on account of its perfection.


  1. They’re not saddled with emotions.
  2. I don’t like Tuggy one bit
  3. There’s no robot for an man like me.

III. Post Reading Tasks

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

Discussion/Writing Exercise

Directions: Place students in groups and have them answer the following questions. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the following discussion topics.

1. How would you put the following three statements from the article into your own words?

“In fact, I think the most interesting thing is people have been very respectful of the robots. When we went and talked to other people at other hospitals, they said, ‘Oh, people get in the way.’ We haven’t had any of that. I think we did a lot as an organization to sort of prime people …t sounds demeaning, but the humans had been coached on how to deal with robots. So welcome to the future. Your robot ethics instructor will see you now.”

“It may have an adult voice, but Tug has a childlike air, even though in this hospital you’re supposed to treat it like a wheelchair-bound old lady. It’s just so innocent, so earnest, and at times, a bit helpless. If there’s enough stuff blocking its way in a corridor, for instance, it can’t reroute around the obstruction.”

“…For as cute as Tug can be—and it pains me to say this—it’s also a bit creepy. There’s something unsettling about a robot that’s responsible for human lives tooling around with minimal commands. Maybe it’s that I occasionally felt like we were hunting wild animals, wandering around in search of Tug after Tug. While technicians can track a Tug’s movements, it isn’t always easy to immediately pinpoint and intercept them.”

2. In your opinion is the Tug robot an asset to have in hospitals? Provide reasons for your answers.

3. Will there be less need for human workers now that robots can perform certain functions?


Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the Tug robots from the reading, two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.


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