From self-piloting cars and airplanes to household vacuum robots, more and more of our daily tasks are being offloaded onto autonomous technology. The next segment of society that might witness a robotics revolution might be the surgical fields, thanks to a study published in Science Translational Medicine. A team of surgeons and engineers from the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation and Johns Hopkins University Department of Computer Science conducted a series of trials that pitted an autonomous surgery robot against human counterparts to see which surgeon - man or machine - could best reconnect a severed pig’s colon.

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The STAR robotic surgery system

The winner? The robot, of course. The autonomous surgery machine, called Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, or STAR, has been previously tested performing surgeries on hard tissues such as bone. This most recent test is the first to show that STAR can outperform human surgeons when it comes to soft tissue operations. The team behind this study believes robotic surgery devices might usher in a new era of lower-risk surgical operations, thanks to the precision and accuracy of robotics:

Despite dynamic scene changes and tissue movement during surgery, we demonstrate that the outcome of supervised autonomous procedures is superior to surgery performed by expert surgeons. [...] These results demonstrate the potential for autonomous robots to improve the efficacy, consistency, functional outcome, and accessibility of surgical techniques.

Previous autonomous surgery robots, such as the problem-prone da Vinci system, have required human operators and are closer to computer-assisted tools than they are autonomous systems. While the STAR system is fully autonomous, it is still supervised by a human surgeon in case of malfunction.

STAR in action (with lowly human assistant)

Peter Kim, one of senior authors on the team’s publication, told reporters at a press conference that while the STAR system shows promise, a fully robotic operating room won’t be seen any time soon. “Our goal is not to replace surgeons,” Kim said, “By making tools more intelligent, we can improve outcomes.”

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I, for one, welcome our new robot doctors.

Robotic surgery systems are being considered as an option for manned deep-space voyages such as the recently proposed 2018 Mars mission. Sending a surgeon into space is a costly and risky endeavor; a robot doc, on the other hand, could be stored in a powered-down state aboard a spacecraft until needed and re-used on multiple missions. While unfortunately most of us will never be astronauts, we could nevertheless see more and more of our medical procedures being done by robots. Let’s just hope Asimov got it right.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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