Robotic exoskeletons are being used for physical therapy. Surgical robots are increasingly smaller, operate with extreme precision and prevent disease. Now with artificial intelligence, the doctor robot has almost become reality.
Automation and robots have redefined every aspect of our lives and medicine has naturally undergone important changes as well. There are three main applications of robotics in medicine:
- Robots with one or more “arms” that carry out a doctor’s commands with a high degree of precision.
- Exoskeletons and physical therapist robots for rehabilitation.
- Micro and nano-robots per diagnostics and prevention.
Robots are in the operating room, but the surgeon is still in charge (at least for now)
A robot normally has four arms. The first three are used for moving the scalpel or other medical instruments while the fourth manoeuvres a camera and video system with various lenses to provide the surgeon with a full, three-dimensional view. The surgeon, seated at a console, executes commands and controls movements with his hands or pedals.
The main benefits of robotic surgery are the ease at which all anatomic areas in the patient can be reached, the three-dimensional view of the operating field and the micro incisions that allow for a shorter hospital stay. In Italy, there are currently about 90 surgical robots that have performed surgery on more than 70,000 patients since 1999. The most frequent types of surgery include cancer removal, urethral re-placement and prostatectomies.
“The trend of the future – states Guang-Zhong Yang, founder and editor of the Science Robotics journal and co-founder of the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery, Imperial College London – will be nanoscopic scale robots that specialise in singular types of procedures and begin making decisions, maybe even only in reacting to the visual commands of the surgeon.”
Further developments in artificial intelligence will probably allow robots more autonomy in carrying out procedures directly. In other words, the surgical robot will probably no longer need a “human” hand.
My friend the exoskeleton
Robotic rehabilitation allows patients to return to an almost normal life even following traumas and invalidating pathologies. The use of physical therapist robots has opened new doors in treating permanent and temporary disabilities. This is especially true with exoskeletons and other robotic systems in the rehabilitation of limbs. For example, robots that patients can wear allow for at least partial movement in people who have lost use of their hands or legs. Progress has also been made in the robotic rehabilitation of arms and hands. Prototypes of robotic gloves are being experimented on for people who have suffered a stroke and need to recover the function of the hand.
Arms as large as a human hair
Diagnosis and prevention have always been a winning combination against disease. For this reason robotics focus on this fundamental aspect of medicine. “The commercial success of the first robotic surgeons” – explains Guang-Zhong Yang – “has inspired new, smaller, safer and more intelligent devices that can explore the human body with greater precision to predict and prevent disease. Robots with arms the diameter of a human hair are being designed to get a look inside and under organs. They will be able to examine cells, thus eliminating the need for biopsies and allowing for even earlier diagnosis”.
An extraordinary resource, but difficult to sustain
The greatest limitation of robotic surgery has nothing to do with quality or functionality, but the significant cost of the machines, which run between 2-3 million euros with high maintenance costs that amount to about 100,000 euros per year. This type of investment can only be justified if the machines are used full time, which is not currently possible due to a lack of surgeons and specialised operators.
Even so, the future of robotical surgery seems clearly marked.
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