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The Rise of the Robosurgeon

Forget Robocop: The future belongs to Robosurgeon.

Popular Mechanics offers an informative look at the role robots are already playing in operating rooms across the country. Currently most robosurgeons are artificial arms that must be controlled by humans. Their inputs can be smoothed to reduce the unsteadiness human hands bring into the OR, but they still require a human operator. That’s about to change:

With demand for surgical systems on the rise, academic researchers are developing a second wave of medical robots, systems with even greater degrees of autonomy. In 2010 the Duke University Ultrasound Transducer Group demonstrated, using turkey breasts, a robot that could perform completely unassisted biopsies. Beyond testing its core capabilities on two women diagnosed with breast cancer, the machine hasn’t made it to broader human trials. But the group’s director, Stephen Smith, believes the technology could have a huge impact in the developing world. “We envision a mobile van with a mammography unit, a 3D scanner, a robot, and a PC with AI software,” Smith says. “One technologist would do everything.”

Ultimately, however, robots aren’t likely to replace doctors entirely. The piece recounts a operation by Beth Israel surgeon Steve Eyre:

As the clamp comes off and the scrambling subsides, that’s when it sinks in. In this particular operating room and during this particular procedure, there’s no place for autonomy or lightly trained technicians. You need experts to look at that tumor. You need Steve to reposition tissue and organs. You need multiple people making complex, sometimes urgent, decisions. And even if human judgment could be somehow distilled into code, our flesh is too unpredictable

There’s many ways this trend could play out. The article argues that we will likely see a mix of autonomous robots and more specialized ones that still require a human controller. This sounds about right: a cadre of doctors to manage the technology and to oversee other health professionals will always be needed, no matter how advanced the technology gets.

Read the whole thing.

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