July 16, 2018 | Updated: May 4, 2021
When thinking about the future of medicine, it’s easy to overlook the fact that robots are already an active part of operating rooms around the world. Together with humans, robots are making procedures more precise and effective. And with advances in AI, they’re starting to do more on their own.
So far, the surgical robots that have seen commercial success help surgeons execute precise maneuvers that they otherwise might not be able to do alone. In an article on surgical robots, IEEE Spectrum concludes: “At the end of the day, the robot is just a fancier tool under direct human control.”
However, times are changing. In a separate piece from IEEE Spectrum, the author notes that a few surgical procedures already incorporate smart machines: “Robots routinely carry out the crucial steps in some procedures including orthopedic knee replacements, Lasik eye surgery and hair transplants.” Using visual inputs, they’re able to chart their own surgical course. They can even do it more precisely than expert surgeons, and with less tissue damage.
Research on Artificial Intelligence, Robots and the Operating Room
When asked about their willingness to allow robots powered by AI technology to operate on their young children (ages eight and younger), Millennial parents in a 2018 IEEE global survey were likely to allow it, particularly in Asia: 82 percent in China and 78 percent in India said they would be “very likely”. Meanwhile, 45 percent in both the U.S. and U.K. say they would be “very likely”.
Compared to a recent 2020 global survey, a majority of Millennial parents are 29 percent extremely or 31 percent very likely to allow robots powered by AI to conduct surgery on their child. Though parents in China are 63 percent very and 26 percent extremely likely to allow robotic surgery on their child, 41 percent of American parents say they are not likely at all to allow it.
Part of this trust comes from precision, and current surgical applications operate on fixed targets, which strong AI is capable of learning quickly. When it comes to operating on soft tissue, like within the abdomen, progress is slower. To put it bluntly, as the surgical robots article does, “All the parts that make up a person’s innards can shift around during procedures, so the robot will have to continuously modify its surgical plan.” Researchers are working to bridge that gap.
AI development is a growing role in the operating room and isn’t limited to robotics. Another way advanced computing can help doctors succeed is by optimizing the scheduling of procedures.
A few years ago, the Mayo Institute experimented with using AI systems to assist with their spinal surgery scheduling. Kevin Curran, IEEE Senior member and Professor of Cybersecurity at Ulster University, recounts the effort: “The algorithm mined a trove of historical data on previous surgeries to ascertain how much time was being spent on each operation, and used additional factors such as patient’s profile and doctor’s previous cases. In a pilot, utilization increased by 19% and overtime was reduced by 10%.”
The roles of AI and robotics in healthcare are increasing rapidly. To see how the competition between doctors and AI is going, you can visit IEEE Spectrum’s “AI vs Doctors” page.