After the Starship captains, there were perhaps no more famous and beloved characters on the various Star Trek series than the ship doctors. From Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy to Dr. Beverly Crusher to Dr. Phlox to Dr. Tracy Pollard, these physicians played key roles in most episodes – highlighting the need for real space travelers to consider how to get medical attention on long-duration missions or for serious emergencies. While nearly all of the Star Trek doctors were humans or humanoids, the most famous non-human showed how artificial intelligence and holograms could play a part in space medicine. That doctor was, of course, the Emergency Medical Hologram (EMH) who quickly became better known The Doctor on "Star Trek: Voyager." The Doctor was supposed to be a short-term assistant to the medical staff, but when Voyager was stranded on the far side of the galaxy with no surviving medical personnel, he became an autonomous AI chief medical officer. This week, another piece of Star Trek fiction becomes reality as a robotics company signed a deal with NASA to send a robotic surgeon to the International Space Station and revealed that it could conceivably perform its functions autonomously. Let’s meet MIRA – the real “The Doctor.”
“The Virtual Incision MIRA platform was designed to deliver the power of a mainframe robotic-assisted surgery device in a miniaturized size, with the goal of making RAS accessible in any operating room on the planet. Working with NASA aboard the space station will test how MIRA can make surgery accessible in even the most faraway places.”
In a press release, John Murphy, CEO of Virtual Incision, introduced MIRA (Miniaturized In-Vivo Robotic Assistance), the world’s first miniaturized robotic-assisted surgery (RAS) platform, and revealed that MIRA will be sent on her first mission in 2024 when she is deployed to the International Space Station. That mission will create real life emergencies requiring MIRA to surgically slice into different types of simulated skin and tissue to study the hows and whys and problems of performing remote surgery in space. Even before she departs, MIRA is already revolutionary … the surgery device weighs about two pounds and can be used in a makeshift operating room – thus eliminating the need for the dedicated mainframe room required by most surgical robot systems. As the press release explains, “With its drape- and dock-free design and portability, MIRA is quick to set up, clean, and move in between cases, potentially enabling an increased robotic-assisted surgery caseload.”
“The surgeon console allows the surgeon to have complete control of MIRA’s instrument arms and endoscopic vision of the anatomy in real-time.
The console is built to improve surgeon ergonomics, allowing them to sit upright without having to put their head in an isolating chamber or wear inflexible headwear that other systems require. This gives surgeons the opportunity to perform RAS with improved situational awareness of the operating room.”
In its initial design, MIRA will be controlled remotely by a human surgeon seated comfortably in front of a computer console with their arms in mechanical sleeves for manipulating MIRA. As one may have figured out from the descriptions (or from the photos here), MIRA does not look even remotely like Dr. Beverly Crusher or any other Star Trek doctors. At this stage, there is no need for a human form to conduct surgery or even just examinations on humans, says project engineer Rachael Wagner in an interview with Inverse. MIRA’s arm and camera enable to do the basic things that all surgeons do before making the first incision into a patient – pull the tissue they want to cut or dissect to create tension, then search for blood vessels to avoid cutting one by mistake. That’s why MIRA’s very first mission in space will have it operating on simulated human tissue.
“That way, we can understand the loads and the forces that the robot experiences doing that, which we are anticipating will be a little different than what it is on Earth.”
While MIRA won’t be operating on beings from other planets belonging to non-human species, it will have to cope with a challenge that Star Trek doctors never encountered – surgery under weightless conditions. Human space travel is still a long way from artificial gravity and the so-called “vomit comet” weightlessness simulations are too brief for conducting worthwhile experiments, so MIRA will be getting on-the-weightless-job training on the ISS.
We know what you’re thinking … what happens if there is an emergency on the ISS and communications are cut off between MIRA, who might be in the middle of a delicate surgery, and the doctor sitting at the console?
“MIRA is designed to be simple to implement and use, small to transport and prepare, and smart in functionality. It has been tailored to be fully autonomous while performing multi-quadrant surgery—providing a surgeon with 360-degree control of the positioning of the robot for the operation as well as providing complete control of the camera—all from the one console.”
As the Virtual Incision website explains, MIRA has a degree of autonomy already built into it. While the controlling surgeon is restricted by the seat of the console, MIRA can determine both visually and technologically when an action requires movements the doctor can’t do and takes over to complete them. With that degree of autonomy and capability, MIRA seems to be on a path to full autonomous functions if Voyager – sorry, the International Space Station – is cut off from human medical personnel.
Is there sufficient demand for a medical school’s worth of MIRA robotic surgeons to operate on space missions? Not yet, so Virtual Incision is also focused on demonstrating the viability of MIRA for Earth applications – installing MIRAs in hospitals in remote areas where surgeons are not readily available, or on the battlefield where conditions might be too dangerous, or during natural disasters where a round-the-clock workload would quickly exhaust a human surgeon.
How would MIRA perform on a Star Trek starship? She still has a long way to go to match the loyalty of Dr. McCoy, the dignity of Dr. Crusher, the versatility of Dr. Phlox and the crankiness of The Doctor – not necessarily traits needed on the ISS but definitely requirements to get Star Trek fans to love the new doctor as much as they did their previous favorite.
One thing is certain – MIRA would not make a good drinking buddy nor a romantic interest for Captain Kirk.