Almost as if robots and humans are now locked in a game of “anything you can do, I can do better,” the latest move is a robot capable of performing fine surgical operations with minimal human supervision.
The Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot – more catchily called STAR – has been developed to perform soft tissue operations using its robotic arm and some detailed computer algorithms. So far, the robot has already been able to suture together the intestines of four living pigs, all of which survived with no complications, at the Children's National Health System in Washington, DC.
The researchers say the robot performed about 60 percent of the surgical operations by itself, with the rest of the work requiring only minor adjustments. Taking into consideration things such as consistency, the amount of time to perform the surgery, and the number of mistakes, they compared STAR’s performance to that of a human.
In a press release, they said: “The comparison showed that supervised autonomous robotic procedures using STAR proved superior to surgery performed by experienced surgeons.”
STAR was developed at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at the Children's National Health System, and the study was recently published in Science Translational Medicine,
STAR in action. Image credit: Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation, Children's National Health System/wwwAAASorg/YouTube
Using robots to assist surgical medicine is not a new phenomenon. In the past, however, their skills have been limited to working with rigid anatomy, such as bone, as it is simpler to work with and easier to predict. The key to working with soft tissue is giving the robot a keen sense of “vision" and an extremely responsive ability to process information.
The robot is equipped with a tracking system that uses cameras, near-infrared fluorescent markers and three-dimensional plenoptic vision. A computer algorithm is used to guide the surgical plan and make adjustments in real time, such as changing pressure on the tissue or the speed of movement.
The scientists were quick to point out that surgeons have no reason to fear they’ll be out of a job just yet.
"Our results demonstrate the potential for autonomous robots to improve the efficacy, consistency, functional outcome and accessibility of surgical techniques," said Dr. Peter C. Kim, vice president and associate surgeon-in-chief of the institute. "The intent of this demonstration is not to replace surgeons, but to expand human capacity and capability through enhanced vision, dexterity and complementary machine intelligence for improved surgical outcomes."
They estimate that STAR technology could be making its way into operating rooms within just two years. By this time, they hope to make the robots even more autonomous.