As he moved the handles — up and down, left and right — the robot mimicked each small motion with its own two arms. Then, when he pinched his thumb and forefinger together, one of the robot’s tiny claws did much the same. This is how surgeons like Dr. Fer have long used robots when operating on patients. They can remove a prostate from a patient while sitting at a computer console across the room.
But after this brief demonstration, Dr. Fer and his fellow researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, showed how they hope to advance the state of the art. Dr. Fer let go of the handles, and a new kind of computer software took over. As he and the other researchers looked on, the robot started to move entirely on its own. With one claw, the machine lifted a tiny plastic ring from an equally tiny peg on the table, passed the ring from one claw to the other, moved it across the table and gingerly hooked it onto a new peg. Then the robot did the same with several more rings, completing the task as quickly as it had when guided by Dr. Fer.
The training exercise was originally designed for humans; moving the rings from peg to peg is how surgeons learn to operate robots like the one in Berkeley. Now, an automated robot performing the test can match or even exceed a human in dexterity, precision and speed, according to a new research paper from the Berkeley team. The project is a part of a much wider effort to bring artificial intelligence into the operating room. Using many of the same technologies that underpin self-driving cars, autonomous drones and warehouse robots, researchers are working to automate surgical robots too. These methods are still a long way from everyday use, but progress is accelerating. “It is an exciting time,” said Russell Taylor, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and former IBM researcher known in the academic world as the father of robotic surgery. “It is where I hoped we would be 20 years ago.” The aim is not to remove surgeons from the operating room but to ease their load and perhaps even raise success rates — where there is room for improvement — by automating particular phases of surgery.
Robots can already exceed human accuracy on some surgical tasks, like placing a pin into a bone (a particularly risky task during knee and hip replacements). The hope is that automated robots can bring greater accuracy to other tasks, like incisions or suturing, and reduce the risks that come with overworked surgeons. During a recent phone call, Greg Hager, a computer scientist at Johns Hopkins, said that surgical automation would progress much like the Autopilot software that was guiding his Tesla down the New Jersey Turnpike as he spoke. The car was driving on its own, he said, but his wife still had her hands on the wheel, should anything go wrong. And she would take over when it was time to exit the highway.
“We can’t automate the whole process, at least not without human oversight,” he said. “But we can start to build automation tools that make the life of a surgeon a little bit easier.”
Metz is a tech reporter with NYT©2021
The New York Times