Will We Ever See Robot Surgeons?
September 16, 2013

Will We Ever See Robot Surgeons?

I recently came across an infographic on the website of Healthcare Administration Degree Programs about the latest in robot health professionals. Is ‘professionals’ the right word? I suppose they are very professional, really.

As well as having a cool list of the latest marvels in robotic technology in medicine, they shared a fascinating fact (which I am a sucker for); apparently the word robot comes from the Czech word ‘robota’, meaning forced labor. It was coined by Czech playwright Karel Capek in the 1920s. Obviously, the term ‘forced labor’ (basically slavery) is unpleasant, and made me think of a question common among fans of robots – how smart and self-aware can robots get before they should have rights? But that’s a thought for another day.

The infographic starts off by telling us that Pier Cristoforo Giulianotti of the University of Illinois surgery department believes robots will never fully replace human surgeons. But then, a lot of amazing things have been dismissed not awfully long before they have happened. Imagine telling a terrified passenger in a flimsy aeroplane in the early days of flying, as they strapped on their goggles, that one day technology would replace pilots.

Despite doubts about a complete robotization of surgical procedures, Mr. Giulianotti does believe that robots already play an extremely important role, and one which will increase greatly in the future.

In 1985, the PUMA 560 assisted neurosurgical biopsies. In 1993, the FDA approved its first robot for surgery, the voice activated AESOP Endoscope Positioner, by Computer Motion, Inc. By the early 2000s, remote surgery, or telesurgery, was being performed on transatlantic scales, when doctors in the US performed surgery to remove the gallbladder of a 68-year-old patient in France. The surgery was a success, despite being performed via technology from a distance of 8,700 miles.

Now, in the present day, robots in surgery are commonplace. The Da Vinci System from Intuitive Surgical, Inc. performed 450,000 soft tissue procedures in 2012. It reduces the size of incisions, and therefore the negative impact of surgery on patients. This means quicker recovery time, less scarring, and less risk. It is a longer operating time, but that is a small price to pay (unlike the $2 million cost of the system).

Then there is the NeuroArm, designed by Dr Garnette Sutherland in association with Macdonald Dettwiler and Associates. It is meant to replicate the movements of a human hand, except without the involuntary spasms, of course, and can perform (as the name suggests) that most complex of operations – brain surgery.

If all this sounding a bit cold and technical, robotics in healthcare have a cuddly side, too. Paro, invented by Dr. Takanori Shibata, is an electronic pet, used for pet therapy. It looks like a baby harp seal, and, like real animals before it, is helped in therapy with psychological disorders or degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Finally, and maybe most exciting, is one I had heard about before (sadly, I hadn’t heard about the seal) which is in its infancy, but which could change all of our lives. A tiny DNA-based ‘nanorobot’ from the Wyss Institute at Harvard, which can buzz around inside us seeking out and combatting cancerous cells. When robots get that good, we will have to wonder if they can replace humans in healthcare completely. Or at least start thinking about giving them some duvet days.

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on Amazon.com.

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