Robots like the da Vinci surgical robot have enabled humans to achieve a remarkable degree of precision when performing certain surgeries, but these technologies – while incredible – are really just an extension of a physician’s body, like a very high tech scalpel or forceps.
A new generation of tiny snake-like robots is actually capable of crawling through the body to perform surgery, but again, these are guided by a human physician, and tethered to a external machine.
Physicians may look forward to these developments, but many may not foresee a future in which the robot will perform tasks on its own, without the guiding hand of a doctor:
“It won’t be very long before we have robots that are nanobots, meaning they will actually be inside the body without tethers,” said Dr. Michael Argenziano, the Chief of Adult Cardiac Surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center in New York.
Argenziano was involved with some of the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration clinical trials on robotic heart surgery more than 10 years ago. Now he says snake robots have become a commonly used tool that gives surgeons a whole new perspective.
“It’s like the ability to have little hands inside the patients, as if the surgeon had been shrunken, and was working on the heart valve,” he said.
But Argenziano and experts in robotics say the new creations work best when they’re designed for very specific tasks. “The robot is a tool. It is no different in that sense than a scalpel. It’s really a master-slave device,” he said.
Argenziano recognizes that medical robots will continue to shrink in size and expand in capability, but is careful to note they won’t be putting him out of a job any time soon. He’s correct – for now.
In a generation, however, we may very well loose tiny robots within our bodies to perform autonomous diagnostics and procedures, often before we’ve even become aware of any symptoms that something is wrong. The role of a physician could easily change to that of a manager, directing fleets of tiny robots within patients, similar to the way an engineer helps guide the actions of robots on a factory floor.