We’re a long way from robots automating surgery as much as they automate other industries such as manufacturing. However, there is a clear path to this futuristic end:
- 100% human controlled robotic device – this is where we are at the moment, complex surgical instruments rather than robots (e.g. Da Vinci).
- Restricted human controlled robotic device – where the surgeon can specify limits to movements, in advance, to avoid accidental damage (e.g. THINK Surgical).
- Automation of standard parts of surgical procedures – for example, making incisions and sewing up (see below).
- Controlled autonomous robot surgery – medical team provides high-level plan for robot to follow, with human approval needed at each stage of the process. However, with telesurgery, the team may be remote (e.g. a different country) to the patient.
- Supervised autonomous robot surgery – humans will still provide supervision with a hand poised over a big red emergency stop button. Eventually, we will have to get rid of the emergency button too as there won’t be any human surgeons to take any corrective action.
The end result may appear challenging, but each step feeds into the next – providing data for future AI systems to learn from.
Although, currently, there may not be a cost-benefit to using robotic systems, as with all technology the prices will come down. And as we progress to the later stages of automation then the savings (e.g. of training surgeons whose skills are lost when they retire) will make most operations affordable to all.
Although to the patient an operation may be a life changing experience, some procedures are very much routine and performed by a surgeon many times each day. The less unique patient-unique parts of these operations are already the target of new companies – for example, the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) uses 3D infra-red imaging to outperform experts making surgical incisions, resulting in less damage to the surrounding tissue, and can also accurately sew a wound back up.
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