The first robot assistant designed for a practice is one forward-thinking orthodontist’s vision for the future of the workplace.

The dream of a robot assistant goes back to at least the early 20th century when future-leaning writers imagined a mechanical person who could walk and talk and accomplish helpful or destructive tasks.

But even in 2022, a useful personal android is still mainly in the domain of science fiction.

For Marc Lemchen, DMD, founder of Lemchen Salzer Orthodontics in New York City, his interest in forward-looking technology led him to search for a robot that could be a helpful assistant in an orthodontic office.

“Many years ago, I wanted to get a robot,” says Lemchen. “I started asking the IT guys to find a robot for me. I finally gave up on them, and I went searching on the internet.”

The first candidate he found was a robot called Pepper, made by SoftBank. It was a four-foot-tall robot with human-like hands, a tablet-sized screen, and a face stuck in a perpetually surprised expression.

Pepper could talk and dance when paired with another Pepper but was ultimately too limited and expensive ($30,000 to $40,000) for Lemchen’s uses.

Eventually, Lemchen settled on a robot made in Israel called Temi. Temi was cheaper and, in some ways, simpler than Pepper. It forgoes a human face and arms for a touchscreen head, wheels, and a platform to place things on, looking somewhat like an upright vacuum with an iPad where the handle should be.

Lemchen worked with Thinking Robots to create unique software for the robot, which would become the basis for Lemchen’s company, ZNO Robotics. The reprogrammed robot, now called ZNO (pronounced ZEE-NO), is the company’s first offering for orthodontic practices.

“This is the introduction of robotics. A relatively simple, low-cost robot that has an application in every office,” says Lemchen.

Pitched as an office assistant, ZNO is part receptionist and part errand boy. It can greet and retrieve guests by name and take them to a specific location in the office. To allow for this spatial awareness, ZNO can be mapped to a practice’s floorplan to know its location and where it wants to go.

With the tray attached to its back, ZNO ferries objects back and forth through the office and can be used to take instruments for sterilization or deliver a cup of coffee.

The robot is assigned tasks by speaking with it or using a menu to go through commands. The robot can also be controlled using computers in the office so that staff don’t have to track it down to ask it to do something. Future integrations will allow it to check patients in.

Lemchen, who has two ZNO robots for his own practice, says the staff have bought into having a robot around.

“The staff loves it,” he says. “A good measure of how functional it is is that the staff would much prefer to send the robot out to get the patient than go themselves.”

Apart from the tasks it is assigned to do, ZNO is also a marketing tool. Lemchen says that people tend to remember a novelty like a talking robot, and children are especially keen on being escorted by a robot to their appointment.

“If it did nothing else but have the patients talk about our office, it would be worth it. Kids love robots, and the adults are no different,” says Lemchen. “Their mothers follow the robot around, taking images of it moving.”

ZNO can get through most of the workday, needing a 1-hour charge (Lemchen calls it a lunch break) at some point to make it to closing time. The current price is $8,000, and that comes with 6 months of support.

ZNO is one of the first stabs at bringing a functional robot into the workplace setting and, as such, it is still in its early days, something that Lemchen admits. But he sees it as a necessary first step in bringing the future we’ve long dreamed of, to today.

“The target audience is the early adopter, the person that wants to differentiate their practice from everybody else’s practice,” he says. “The practitioner who believes, as I do, that you have to have the patient leave with something really positive and exciting to say about that visit.”

Photo via ZNO Robotics