Steered by his love of Star Wars, one Singaporean doctor is creating medically-trained autonomous robots. You know, for the benefit of mankind.
Dr. Benjamin Tee, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the National University of Singapore, is no small Star Wars fan. Long captivated by the scene in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back where the surgical droid replaces Luke Skywalker’s hand after Darth Vader slices it off with a lightsaber, he holds the view that a fully autonomous robot surgeon as the Holy Grail. He also holds no illusion that such a marvel is many years off.
In the meantime, Dr. Tee and other researchers are developing devices that can perform surgical tasks with minimal human oversight. His latest project is an “artificial skin” that would given robots a sense of touch, allowing them to differentiate between healthy tissue and tumours and make surgical incisions, among other actions. Other researchers are developing robots that have the ability to stitch up incisions and navigate to repair organs.
Today’s surgeons have million-dollar robotic devices in their arsenal, assisting them with suturing, dissecting, retracting tissue and more, but the surgeons are always in control. The next frontier is a to build devices that function autonomously. Such machines would make operations performed outside in Antarctica, in rural areas without access to surgeons or, one day, on a spacecraft a lot easier.
Automating the menial tasks would also free up mental and physical resources in the operating room, allowing surgeons to focus on more critical and complex aspects of operations. The United States has a worsening shortage of surgeons, and the coronavirus has highlighted the need for robotic help in operating rooms to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus for staff and patients.
There are plenty of technical, regulatory and safety hurdles the technology needs to overcome before it shows up anywhere. Furthermore, there exists social and philosophical hurdles—how many people would allow a robot to perform surgery on them? And if they would, where do they draw the line?
In any case, early signs indicate that such robots could eventually perform certain surgical procedures quickly and more consistently than humans, minimising complications and making for more efficient, perhaps cheaper surgeries.
“That’s something where the robot really shines—precision, repeatability,” says Axel Krieger, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, who is researching autonomous surgery. “And it doesn’t get tired.”