Would you let a robot operate on you? This photo provided by Axel Krieger/Science Translational Medicine shows Dr. Azad Shademan and Ryan Decker during supervised autonomous in-vivo bowel anastomosis performed by the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR). (Image below) Dr. Barry Gardiner demonstrates the Da Vinci Surgical System (Axel Krieger/Science Translational Medicine via AP/AP Photo/Charles Bennett)
Would you let a robot operate on you?
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Getting stitched up by Dr. Robot may one day be reality. Scientists have created a robotic system that did just that in living animals without a real doctor pulling the strings.
 
Much like engineers are designing self-driving cars, the medical research is part of a move toward autonomous surgical robots. They can remove the surgeon's hands from certain tasks that a machine might perform all by itself.
 
No, doctors wouldn't leave the bedside. They're supposed to supervise, plus they'd handle the rest of the surgery. Nor is the device ready for operating rooms.
 
But in small tests using pigs, the robotic arm performed at least as well, and in some cases a bit better, as some competing surgeons in stitching together intestinal tissue. Researchers reported it in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
 
"The purpose wasn't to replace surgeons," said Dr. Peter C. W. Kim of Children's National Health System in Washington. Kim is a pediatric surgeon who led the project. "If you have an intelligent tool that works with a surgeon, can it improve the outcome? That's what we have done."
 
If you've heard about machines like the popular Da Vinci system, you might think robots already are operating. Not really. Today many hospitals offer robot-assisted surgery. Surgeons use the machinery as tools that they manually control. They are used typically to operate through tiny openings in the body. But robot-assisted surgery has been controversial. Some studies have shown it can bring higher costs without better outcomes.
 
So why the push for next-generation autonomous robots? Proponents think there are cases 
where a machine's precision may outperform a human hand.
 
The latest project is "the first baby step toward true autonomy," said Dr. Umamaheswar Duvvuri of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He is a head and neck surgeon and robotic specialist who wasn't involved with the new work.
 
But don't expect to see doctors ever leave entire operations in a robot's digits, he cautioned.
 
It's designed to do one specific task, stitch up tissue. The machine is a lot like the automation trend in other industries. Robot arms do the welding and painting in most U.S. car assembly lines, for example. They can find inventory in warehouses. From the driver's perspective, many cars now are able to warn drivers when they're too close to the car in front, or take control and apply the brakes to prevent a crash.
 
The new STAR system stands for Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot. It works sort of like a 
programmable sewing machine.
 
Kim's team at Children's Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation took a standard robotic arm and equipped it with suturing equipment plus smart imaging technologies to let it track moving tissue in 3-D and with an equivalent of night vision. They added sensors, too. Those helped guide each stitch and tell how tightly to pull.
 
The surgeon places fluorescent markers on the tissue that needs stitching. Then the robot takes aim as doctors keep watch.
 
Now the test: Could the STAR reconnect tubular pieces of intestinal tissue from pigs, sort of like two ends of a garden hose? Any soft-tissue surgeries are tricky for machinery because those tissues move out of place so easily. And the stitches in these connections must be placed precisely to avoid leaks or blockages. It is a challenge even for experts.
 
Using pieces of pig bowel outside of the animals' bodies as well as in five living but sedated pigs, the researchers tested the STAR robot against open surgery, minimally invasive surgery and robot-assisted surgery.
 
By some measures - the consistency of stitches and their strength to avoid leaks - "we 
surpassed the surgeons," said Children's engineer Ryan Decker.
 
The STAR approach wasn't perfect. The STAR had to reposition fewer stitches than the surgeons performing minimally invasive or robot-assisted suturing. But in the living animals, the robot took much longer. It also made a few suturing mistakes while the surgeon sewing by hand made none.
 
Kim, whose team has filed patents on the system, said the robot can be sped up. He hopes to begin human studies in two or three years.

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COMMENTS (18)
  • wriver-dav
    8/24/2016 - 04:47 p.m.

    In response to "Would you let a robot operate on you?" I would say at least for right now, I would not have a robot operate on me. One reason that I would not have a robot operate on me is I would never put my life in the hands of a robot. Another reason is in the document it states "some studies have shown that can bring higher cost without better outcomes." Just that right there makes me feel uneasy. A third reason is if anything were to go wrong in the programming of the robot it could malfunction and you could be dead. Even though, we do now have the technology to have robots operate on us with possible success, I would still not let a robot operate on me.

  • hmadison-dav
    8/24/2016 - 07:46 p.m.

    In response to "Would You Let A Robot Operate On You?" I disagree that we should let robots help doctors in operations. One reason I disagree is that in the article paragraph 6 it states that the robot-assisted surgery has been controversial. Some studies have shown it can bring higher costs without better outcomes. So, you are getting surgery that cost more and might not even turn out right. Another reason is that in the article it states that any soft-tissue surgeries are tricky for machinery because those tissues move out of place so easily. The stitches in these connections must be placed precisely to avoid leaks or blockages. It is a challenge even for experts. If this kind of operation is difficult for an expert I wouldn't want a machine doing surgery on me. A third reason is since it cost extra to get operated on with the machine why can't you just get the doctor to do it themselves? It cost less and there is a way better chance that the outcome of the surgery will turn out correctly. Even though people might think robots helping surgeons will improve the outcome of an operation, I think people should not let robots operate on them.

  • bchase-dav
    8/25/2016 - 07:50 p.m.

    In response to "Would you let a robot operate on you?" I agree that I would let a robot operate on me. One reason I agree is that these are highly tested robots, not experimental toys. Another reason is that they are always monitored by humans. It says in the article ,"But don't expect to see doctors ever leave entire operations in a robot's digits, he cautioned.". A third reason is that these kind of robots are less accident prone than a free roam robot. By "free roam" robots, I mean the kind that are not wired to the ground, but have legs or wheels. Even though you might think these robots may have a malfunction at the wrong time, I think that i these robots do have a malfunction, they will be immediately stopped by overseers.

  • polivia-dav
    8/25/2016 - 08:10 p.m.

    From reading this article, I agree that robots should be used for certain tasks of an operation. One reason I agree with this is because technology these days is very advanced. It is getting more genius by the second. Another reason is that the surgeons will not leave your side during this. They will make sure everything goes right. It says in the article "No, doctors wouldn't leave the bedside. They're supposed to supervise." From knowing this, I would feel more comfortable with the procedure. A third reason why I think this is because these "robots" do a pretty good job on the task. The researchers know this due to tests done on pigs. Even though this piece of technology isn't out to the public yet, think it will have a very positive outcome and be very helpful to many people.

  • fblake-dav
    8/25/2016 - 10:34 p.m.

    In response to "Would you let a robot operate on you," I disagree that I would not like that. One reason I disagree is that the robot make blow up and malfunction while I'm in surgery. Another reason is that a human would be better than a robot because humans can solve things when problems happen. It says in the article that the robots didn't always do well in surgery and the doctors had to fix mistakes. A third reason it's a waste of time and money when a lot of the time the doctors have to fix the mistakes the robots make. Even though it sounds like a good idea, I think robots should stick to painting cars and not performing surgery on humans.


    Neergaard, Lauran. "Would You Let a Robot Operate on You?" Smithsonian Tween Tribune. N.p., 09 May 20169. Web. 25 Aug. 2016. <http://www.tweentribune.com/article/tween56/would-you-let-robot-operate-you/>.


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  • jthom-wim5
    9/16/2016 - 01:14 p.m.

    Well, personally I think this would mean less errors and likelihood of leaking tissues and body parts. I support this with this from the text, "By some measures- the constancy of stitches and their strength to avoid leaks,". But would I let one do a surgery on me NOW? Of course not, but in the future when its perfected maybe. I sign off so goodbye.

  • omccall-dav
    9/21/2016 - 11:36 p.m.

    In response to letting a robot operate on me. I would let a robot operate on me because the robot would only be stitching tissue and it would not do major operations, so I would be okay with it. Another reason is that the robot would be like a sidekick to the surgeon the robot would just assist the surgeon so if something went wrong they could cut off the machine. It says in the article "Proponents think there are cases where a machine's precision may outperform a human hand." My third reason is that the machine could possibly do a better job than the surgeon, so I would almost feel better in the robot's hands than the surgeons. Even though the robot is a programmed machine it could make a major mistake I still think I would be okay with it operating on me.

  • zlily-dav
    11/17/2016 - 11:28 p.m.

    In response to the article, “Would you let a robot operate on you?" I can honestly say “no” because surgery may take longer, the robot could make mistakes, and it could cost me more money. One reason I prefer surgeons over robots for surgery is that robots can be slow, especially if all work has to be inspected by a surgeon. According to the article, “in the living animals, the robot took much longer.” I personally would want surgery over as quickly as possible. Another reason I would not want a robot operating on me is because of the chance of mistakes. The article states that the robot “made a few suturing mistakes while the surgeon sewing by hand made none.” Robots are only machines that are programmed to do something. Every case can be different and robots don’t have the ability to make those kinds of split second decisions. A third reason I would not let a robot operate on me is because it could cost me more money. Robots are expensive and you still need surgeons to supervise so now there are two costs instead of one. In the article it says, “studies have shown it can bring higher costs without better outcomes.” For these reasons, I will stick with surgeons over machines. I think that the human element is important when people’s lives are at stake.

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