Is the Future of Robotic Surgery Already Here?

One day, a robot may be in charge of operating on you for a major surgery that may save your life. When do you think this day will come to pass? A hundred years from now? Or as early as tomorrow?

You may not realize it, but we’re already entering an era where robotic surgery is becoming the norm. The technology already exists and is being used in both animal and human applications, but it certainly has a long way to go before it starts to replace human surgeons—or does it?

Where Robot Surgery Stands Today

To understand where robotic surgery is going, we first have to understand where the technology stands today. These are just a few recent examples of how the technology has been used to improve human health and surgical outcomes:

  • As an alternative to fully open surgeries, a four-armed, 3D-projecting robotic machine known as da Vinci Si allows thoracic surgeons, like lung cancer specialists at Rush University, to perform precise operations with less tissue trauma. Less than 5 percent of thoracic surgeries currently employ this technology, but it can be extremely beneficial in offering more precise movements, and speeding up recovery time by operating through small incisions rather than major cuts. The da Vinci series of robotic systems are currently the only federally approved robotic surgery assistants, and are used in a variety of different surgical applications (though it is not available in all areas).
  • Magnetically controlled arms in the Stereotaxis Niobe system allow cardiovascular surgeons to maintain more control and access hard-to-reach portions of tissue in the cardiovascular system. It is often used when treating cardiac arrhythmia, and has regulatory clearance in the United States, European Union, and several other countries worldwide.
  • An automated surgery bot known as the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) has proven capable of performing some surgical procedures on pigs, such as sewing tissue. The machine operates on its own, but is currently being used with heavy human supervision. It’s designed to handle some of the more tedious and predictable surgical tasks, rather than full-scale operations on its own, and is nearing availability for human testing.

The Potential Future

Hypothetically, a sufficiently advanced surgical robot would have access to more data than its human counterparts, and would be able to operate with more precision and a smaller chance of error. It would be safer, more efficient, and possibly even cheaper to rely on a fleet of artificially intelligent, automated machines to handle this work. What we see today is merely the first step on this track of development, so what’s stopping us from achieving this safer, healthier reality?

Issues That Still Need to Be Addressed

These are the main issues preventing surgical robots from being more advanced and more widespread:

  • 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 having 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, but the future holds much promise. Researchers are working tirelessly to address the potential threats and challenges that automated surgeons hold, and iteratively, we’ll all come to accept the efficiency and reliability of these machines.

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