The idea of robots in improving healthcare is not new – as early as 1985 there was a plan to transform industrial robots into precision machines for surgery and beyond. The appearance and improvement of the DaVinci robot in the early 2000s and this iconic grape surgery video prove how far technological development has come.
But no matter how impressive, robotics in healthcare is still a system controlled by humans. The real magic of the 21st-century robo-doctor will come from artificial intelligence systems that can learn so much that it will outperform the best doctors by combining all the available knowledge in all medical repositories. However, most experts agree that AI will not replace trained medical staff, just make them more efficient in several areas, including:
1) Improving accuracy
Robotic systems don’t have feelings, they can’t get tired, and they never have a slip of attention. If this sounds like the perfect surgeon, it was also the reasoning behind multiple robots that are already used in top hospitals around the world. Called Waldo surgeons, these can bridge the gap between humans and machines and perform tasks with excellent precision, increased strength and no tremors of the knife. As long as the software is correctly set for the undergoing procedure, the human surgeon takes a secondary, supervising role.
Excellent precision also comes in the form of targeted micro-robots, which go precisely where they are needed and deploy drugs locally or even perform micro-surgery, such as unclogging blood vessels.
2) Precise diagnosis
The real power of AI, claim InData Labs experts, lies in detecting patterns that describe various conditions by studying healthcare records and other data. The machine can scan thousands of cases and look for correlations between hundreds of variables, some of which are not even listed in current medical works.
Tests so far have proven that robotic systems can rival the best doctors and even surpass them in some areas. For example, an endoscopic system from Japan detects colon cancer in real time and is 86% accurate. However, this is not as impressive as IBM Watson, which has already hit the 99% mark in cancer diagnosis.
3) Remote treatment
The first idea to use a robot for medical purposes remotely came from DARPA in the 1990s, but communication networks at that time were not able to offer the necessary support to treat soldiers on the battlefield. Current 4G and upcoming 5G standards have made this a problem of the past. DARPA continues to fund these efforts, yet until now it seems that robotic surgery still requires human assistants for hygiene purposes and other tasks, which, in fact, is making matters more complicated and not economically viable.
More recently, the U.S. Department of Defense funded research at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh to create an autonomous robotic trauma care system for treating soldiers injured in remote locations.
One way AI, together with some AR capabilities, can help surgeons is by creating a real-time, customized overlay during the surgery, highlighting blood vessels and other sensitive areas. If a robotic arm is used, the knowledge library can suggest various tools to be used based on current best practices.
Another type of remote healthcare robot is a simple bot-pill that performs an endoscopy in a much more comfortable way than previous options. This ‘magical pill’ sends pictures of your intestines as it travels them, and you eliminate it naturally.
4) Augmenting human abilities
Some medical robots assist patients in addition to medical staff. For example, exoskeleton robots can help paralyzed patients walk again and be independent of caretakers.
Another application of technology is a smart prosthesis. These bionic limbs have sensors that make them sometimes more reactive and accurate than the original body parts, adding the possibility to cover these with bionic skin and connect them to the person’s muscles.
5) Supporting mental health and daily tasks
Service robots can perform human functions like making sick or elderly patients feel less lonely. Conversational and companion robots can help these patients stay positive, remind them to take their medicine and perform simple routine check-ups like temperature, blood pressure, and sugar levels.
These are almost like personal assistants, and even come with built-in personality and sentiment analysis capabilities, which are especially helpful for depressed patients.
6) Auxiliary robots
There is much work in a hospital, and not only doctors can use a helping hand. Nurses and hospital personnel can benefit from the help of robots such as the Moxi robot by Diligent Robotics. This robot takes care of restocking, bringing items and cleaning so that nurses can spend more time with patients and offer a human touch while leaving the grinding to the machine.
Another excellent auxiliary robot is a UV Light disinfectant robot, which goes into a hospital room and doesn’t leave until it is germ-free.
Many people use social media, Netflix, Siri, Alexa and other “smart” systems without realizing that many of these systems are powered by machine learning. As each of these AI and robotics developments advance in healthcare, it will be better for officials to explain the benefits of these advances, not the technology, to help smooth the adoption curve and to sooth any fears about the use of AI and robots in the medical space.