The next time you have to go under the knife, a robot may be doing the cutting. Engineers at Duke University are pushing the envelope of cutting edge surgery with a robot arm they've built that can perform simple procedures all by itself. The system guides itself using 3-d ultrasound imaging as its eyes, and has shown it can accurately guide two needle probes through tissue in a simulated biopsy and blood vessel graft. The bot's still in its experimental phase, but ultrasound specialist Stephen Smith and his research team believe the day is near when robots will autonomously conduct surgery without the need for human guidance.
Together with the recent development of an automatic anesthesia machine, the automated robot surgeon presents an eerie prospect for the operating room of tomorrow: it may be completely uninhabited by people except you, the patient. Perhaps a technician will look on from behind a two-way mirror; perhaps not.
There's a long way to go before that happens. For example, robots will have to learn to adapt to unforeseen complications during surgery. But what would you think if the OR at your local hospital looked more like an assembly line at General Motors and less like a place where people are healed? Would you trust a robot to cut you apart then sew you back up, good as new?