The idea of a robot performing surgery might raise some questions — will the doctor even be present? What if, much like a self-driving car, the robot makes a bad decision and harms the patient? — but the reality is much more reassuring. A surgical robot is a highly advanced tool guided by the watchful eye of a doctor. Here’s how artificial intelligence in robotics is shaking up the medical field.
The very thought of a scalpel can invoke anxiety. However, medicine has come a long way since humans first started operating on each other. Doctors didn’t discover anesthesia until 1846, before which surgery was an excruciating ordeal that often traumatized both patients and surgeons alike. Antiseptic wound treatment and hand washing came decades later, and infections often killed patients who managed to survive their procedure.
It would seem as though the biggest turning points took place long in the past. And yet, a breakthrough of similar magnitude happened only recently at the end of the twentieth century.
Robotic surgery is nothing short of a medical marvel. A surgeon sits in front of what looks like an arcade machine, peering into a set of goggles that provide a 3D look inside the patient. Several metal tubes equipped with clamps, scissors, cameras, and plastic bags for containing organs explore the patient’s body through incisions smaller than a paperclip. The surgeon guides the tools with complex remote controls on her hands.
On the screen is a magnified view of the patient’s organs. A separate screen shows an augmented reality where blood flow is brightly colored, and hidden organs are plainly visible. When the surgeon moves her head away from the screen, the robot automatically pauses, its override controls preventing anyone from using it.
The Benefits of Robotic Surgery
Artificial intelligence in robotics plays a huge role in modern surgical procedures. AI came about in the 1950s, but it only recently found its way into the operating room.
Now, software can filter out tremors in a surgeon’s hands during robotic surgery. During laser eye surgery, the AI compensates for patient eye movement to make precise cuts in the right spot. Surgeons can program their scalpel to make a single, tiny cut of a particular size or shape.
No longer forced to stand for hours on end, surgeons can now perform surgery sitting down, allowing them to concentrate on the patient without developing neck or back pain. Surgeons with limited leg mobility can also work in the operating room thanks to robots.
Best of all is the vastly improved patient outcomes associated with laparoscopic operations. All robotic surgeries are laparoscopic, meaning the surgeon makes extremely tiny incisions and inserts the tools through them.
If she needs to remove a large ovarian cyst, for example, she doesn’t have to make a cut bigger than the cyst itself. She can use robotic tools to cut the cyst into pieces inside the patient’s body and extract them through a hole scarcely larger than a thumbnail. Then, she seals the wound from the inside with dissolvable stitches.
Compared to traditional open surgery — where the doctor makes a cut large enough to insert her whole hand into the patient’s abdomen — laparoscopic procedures allow for faster healing time, fewer complications, and smaller scars. Coupled with artificial intelligence and robotics, an operation is easier than ever for doctors and patients alike. The incidence of life-threatening complications during gastrointestinal surgery is 1% to 4% during open surgery, compared to 0% to 2% for robot-assisted operations.
It isn’t perfect — the robotic arms are large and stiff, and doctors have to inflate patients with air to fit the tools inside. That limits robotic surgery to abdominal operations for the time being. But technology is advancing at a rapid pace.
The Future of Artificial Intelligence in Robotics
AI-assisted robotic surgery will never replace doctors. Rather, it allows them to expand their capabilities, cutting with such precision and care that patients recover in record time. Future robots will likely have tiny, bendable arms — much like an elephant’s trunk — to operate on even harder-to-reach spots such as the urological tract or lungs.
Though surgery isn’t fun, there has never been a better time in human history to get an operation.
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