The Futuristic Robot Surgeons of 1982 Have Arrived

Illustration for article titled The Futuristic Robot Surgeons of 1982 Have Arrived

A futuristic technology hasn't really arrived until someone files a lawsuit against it. And in that case, the robot surgeon is here. Welcome to the future.


The da Vinci surgical robot (or, more accurately, its maker) was acquitted on Friday in the case of a man who died in 2012 after a botched robotic surgery four years earlier. The jury voted 10-2 in favor of Intuitive, the maker of the da Vinci, but you can rest assured this won't be the last legal battle for robot-assisted medicine.

Highly advanced robot surgeons have long been a promise of the future. As industrial robots of the 1980s became more complex in places like the car assembly lines of Detroit, interest in applying these gangly-armed bots to repairing our bodies found its way to the pages of popular futurism books.

The 1982 series of futurist children's books, World of Tomorrow by Neil Ardley, included this vision of robot doctors operating on the patients of tomorrow. Much like the robot surgeons of 2013, these robots are carefully monitored while in operation. The precision and speed of these Reagan-era robo-docs are vastly superior to that of any human doctor:

Here you can see an operation taking place in a hospital of the future. The patient has had a terrible accident and lost an arm. However, the arm has been recovered and robot surgeons are reattaching it to its owner.

The operation is very intricate. Tiny nerve endings and blood vessels have to be fixed to each other. The robots work tirelessly and with great precision and speed to repair the damage. They can operate on very small parts of the body, using needle-thin laser beams to cut through and also to seal the tissues together. Human surgeons check the robots via television and make sure that the patient remains in good condition.

After the operation the patient will receive special care to speed recovery. As well as good nursing, this may include radio or electrical treatment to make the nerves, bones and skin grow quickly so that the patient's arm soon regains its normal use.

Treatment to induce tissues to grow could be very valuable in the hospital of the future. It could help burn victims to recover very quickly by encouraging new skin to grow over their burns. Even more important, it may help to cure paralyzed people. The treatment would cause new nerves and muscles to grow and replace the dead nerves and muscles producing the paralysis.

It's even possible that such treatment could make missing organs and maybe even limbs grow again, much as our hair and nails continue to grow after cutting them. One day surgeons may be able to remove a diseased part of the body and provide a framework on which the patient grows a new part!

The robot surgeons of today, of course, aren't autonomous in the sci-fi robot sense and still require quite a bit of human guidance. But despite the assurances that humans are at the wheel, robot surgery still makes some people incredibly uneasy. Hospitals are even hosting open houses to introduce the public to their robo-surgeons in an effort to make them seem less intimidating. One open house at a hospital in Los Angeles is even promoting it as an opportunity to have your photo taken with the robot.

Now we have pseudo-celebrity robot doctors in L.A.? Apparently no job is safe from the robot revolution.




This is the third article I've read in two weeks mentioning surgical robotics, making them seem autonomous. As an engineer working for a surgical robotic company, I can assure you that it's significantly more than "quite a bit of human guidance", it's essentially all human guidance. Surgeons are still in control of all the instruments of the robot via a surgeon console. The idea is to give the surgeon greater control over the instruments than is currently available in laparoscopic instruments. That and a 3D vision system and more dexterous instruments are significant advantages as well.