The robot will see you now: Will computers completely take over medicine? 2018-08-29T12:43:32+01:00
r&d into robots and medicine

Robots and medicine

Surgery by remotely operated robots is nothing new. As far back as the 1990s, the Pentagon invested in new ways to treat soldiers in the field that would avoid putting surgeons at risk. This ultimately resulted in the invention of the Da Vinci machine by Intuitive Surgical, a project that has resulted in almost total market dominance with 4,000 units in theatres around the world with a valuation of $62bn.

The growth of robotic surgery

Robot-assisted surgeries now account for 5% of all surgery world wide. With a growing uptake, confidence and demand for such machines, the competition is beginning to emerge with their own products. Google, in conjunction with Johnson & Johnson, is developing its own machine called Verb. In the UK, CMR Surgical have created Versius which they claim is the world’s smallest surgical robot, and that it can cut down the training time required to learn how to tie a surgical knot from 80 hours to just 30 minutes.

With the growth in robot-assisted surgeries the next logical question becomes: how long will it be before we see robots completing procedures autonomously, without human oversight? Martin Frost, CEO of CMR Surgical, suggests that, “We think that it is possible, within a few years, that a robot may do part of certain procedures ‘itself’, but we are obviously a very long way from a machine doing diagnosis and cure, and there being no human involved.”

Taking robot surgery to the next level

The inevitability then, of automated surgery, seems to be a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if.’ Back in 2011 the US military conducted a five year feasibility study, examining the application of existing technology for use in procedures such as the one carried out by Dr Jacques Marescaux in 2001. With 4,000 miles and the Atlantic Ocean between him and his patient, Dr. Marescaux and his team were able to successfully remove the patient’s gallbladder.

What the study highlights is that the primary obstacle to more widespread use of ‘telesurgery’ at present is the lack of secure high-speed connections. In order for latency times (speed of connection between Dr and patient) not to pose a potential danger, an entirely dedicated network would have to be established with fail safes in place. As Dr Roger Smith, leader of the feasibility study at the Nicholson Centre for advanced surgery in Florida explains: “In the civilian world, there are few situations where you would say this is a must-have thing.”

So currently the business case for implementing such a network isn’t there, but with so many new innovations and companies bringing new machines to market that increasingly improve surgical processes, we could be nearing a tipping point.

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