Robots have taken over in numerous industries replacing humans in repetitive tasks or which humans just no longer want to do, such as in canning factories, production of cars, or electronic works that may be fatally dangerous. Human drivers are being replaced with autonomous driving vehicles and waiters will also soon be replaced as soon as the world picks up after China’s autonomous waiter. The question arises, are we getting too ahead of ourselves?
Imagine being steered into the operation theatre and staring into the metallic eyes of your surgeon only to realize that there has been an AI (artificial intellgence) takeover. Mankind’s worst fears of robot uprising may not be very distant.
Although robots have not taken over the whole surgical teams, they have however made quite an impact on assisting surgeons while operating on crucial and sensitive operations. Science Robotics has published an editorial ranking these medical-bots based on their level of autonomous control. The levels range between starting from zero, with no automation and fully man controlled to level five where the bots are fully autonomous machines capable of performing whole surgeries on their own. Despite level five still being a long ways off, robots are however starting to raise many pertinent questions about the nature of medicine that the field must lay down some ground rules.
Medicine robotics has recently made a breakthrough with the first robot-assisted cochlear implant in a clinical trial. “We are interested in doing something with the robot that a surgeon is not able to do,” stated study co-author and researcher Stefan Weber of the ARTORG Center for Biomedical Engineering Research. He further added, "We were on this project for more than eight years. And in contrast to a lot of research, we really stuck to one application for the entire time."
Weber reveals that after years of working on the robot's design and creating safety mechanisms such as pre-surgery patient skull analysis, personalizing the robotic treatment plan and facial nerve monitoring to verify that the robot won't harm surrounding tissues during the surgery. The bot was finally allowed to operate on a 51-year-old female patient successfully. Since then, the robot has assisted on other three successful surgeries.
Using the bot almost gives surgeons superpowers, having access to such inhuman precision when measuring through tissue and to know just how far and with how much force to exert when drilling through bone or flesh. All this accuracy allows the surgeons to avoid removing extra bone to get to the inner ear. Nevertheless the cochlear robot still is dependent on is human controller to tell it when to start and stop. “The robot provides the guidance and provides for this particular task very accurate sensing, because it’s the particular task that will really affect the entire surgery,” says Science Robotics editor Guang-Zhong Yang, a co-author of the editorial.
Now with this success under their belt, Weber's team is working on the robot for the last step of implantation—threading an electrode into the inner ear. Their progress is said to have been going good.