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There’s now a robot-doctor that can finish performing a surgery on its own

In a not-too-distant future, robots will be driving us around, serving us our coffee, and, apparently, performing our surgeries. New research published in the journal Science Translational Medicine today hints at a time when robots will be able to perform parts of surgeries on their own, without any help from humans.

While robotic surgeries are not entirely new—robots have been assisting doctors in surgeries since the turn of the millennium—the robots are often controlled entirely by humans, who use the bots to access areas or perform tasks that humans can’t complete as accurately. Doctors from the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation in Washington, DC, and computer scientists from Johns Hopkins University published a paper today outlining a method for using a robot arm to autonomously suture up a patient at the end of surgery.

Performing the surgery on a living pig.
Performing the surgery on a living pig. (Axel Krieger)

It’s not quite the medical robots from Star Wars, but it’s a step in that direction. In the group’s paper, they say there are roughly 44.5 million soft-tissue surgeries in the US each year, and their robot’s procedure would help cut down the chance for error as doctors finish up surgeries. After all, robots don’t tend to wear watches that they can drop into patients or forget to take sponges out of you while they’re closing you up.

Our living, breathing bodies are not flat objects that conform to easily definable surfaces—our tissues move as we do, even when we’re knocked out on the operating table. As such, the team’s robot needed to be able to respond to any changes in the surface it was sewing up as it was working. The robot uses computer vision and a proprietary autonomous sewing algorithm, along with a sensor to gauge how much force it’s applying to the patient, to account for the changes in the surface of the tissue it’s suturing as it’s working.

Pig tissue, being sewn up by a robot doctor. (Science Translational Medicine)

The team tested the robot on a series of tissues from pigs, whose tissues aren’t wildly different from our own. The team first started out on dead tissues, and then successfully used the bot to finish up two minimally invasive surgeries on living pigs’ intestines. All the human doctor is doing in this case is feeding the robot suture thread—the robot is preforming the sewing on its own. The team had five doctors perform the same procedure in the same situations as the robot. According to the team’s paper, the bot surpassed the performance of the techniques that humans used in certain situations, such as the uniformity of the spacing between sutures, and how leak-proof a job they did.

The team called their work a “proof of concept” that robots can more greatly aid human doctors in the operating room, but said in the paper that they don’t intend for this concept to actually replace human doctors. “The intent of this demonstration of feasibility in soft tissue surgery was not to replace surgeons but to expand human capacity and capability through enhanced vision, dexterity, and complementary machine intelligence for improved surgical outcomes, safety, and patient access,” the paper said.

In the future, the researchers aim to develop their robot into something that could be used on humans in a live operating room, by continuing to work on its ability to see and plan the procedures in front of it. Although the team doesn’t want to replace doctors with bots, it’s hard to see that not happening in the distant future, when computers can see as well as we do, and act more effectively. But considering our most advanced robots right now walk like drunkards and fall over pretty easily, and this bot is being fed suture thread to tie up some pig flesh, that’s probably still quite a ways away.

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