To understand where robotic surgery is going, we first have to understand it’s history and how the technology has been used to improve human health and surgical outcomes:
A faster, more robust internet has made robotic surgery technology more viable and today telesurgery is a reality. Also called remote surgery, it is performed by a surgeon at a site removed from the patient. Surgical tasks are directly performed by a robotic system controlled by the surgeon at the remote site.
Today researchers are developing a variety of new robots such as tiny surgical robots – nanobots – that may someday roam inside the body on their own.
It is estimated that China is set to have a million lung cancer deaths a year. Lung cancer is surgically treatable, but only if it is found fast enough. Robots could be the key to early detection of lung cancer.
Currently, surgeons use a pre-operative image to search for cancer, but the lungs are a moving target. In order to reach the cancer, surgeons deform the lungs on the way in and again on the way out because they are taking a different path. With surgical robotics, you can track the path in and use that same motion tracking data on the way out.
Using a fleet of artificially intelligent, automated machines to handle surgery could be safer, more efficient, and possibly even cheaper. If this is the case, why are they not more widely used today?
These are the main issues preventing surgical robots from being more advanced and more widespread:
Artificial Intelligence (AI) challenges. While some surgical procedures are routine and predictable, others are highly variable, with tissue that looks different depending on the individual patient. Developing an AI that can follow a series of steps but still be able to identify when a complication has emerged requires expertise, and juggling thousands of variables simultaneously. That’s why the only automated robots in circulation currently are focused on tedious, low-level tasks.
Backup plans. All robots are currently used in conjunction with humans, under close supervision, so that the human surgeon may take over in the event that something goes wrong. In a future where surgeries are automated, why kinds of backup plans will we have?
Security. Security is always a concern with new technology. What would happen if a hacker gains control of these automated devices, holding them hostage or threatening a patient’s life? How can we ensure they end up in the most responsible hands?
Testing ethics. Before robotic surgery technology rolls out to the general public, it needs to be tested on a number of human patients, but that produces an ethical dilemma; at what point are we comfortable subjecting human guinea pigs to these machines?
Patient acceptance. Finally, patients will need to consent to have robotic surgeons operate on them, and winning over the public trust is going to be a massive challenge. Fears of unpredictability or robot takeovers may halt an otherwise natural progression.
The world of robotically-controlled surgery is just starting to develop. It is a tight partnership between humans and machines, with one making up for the weaknesses of the other.