My new resolution is to be less robophobic, says Nick Booth. There are good reasons to fear these electronic ‘jobsworths’. Robots write apps, books, songs and slaughter chess grandmasters. Worse still, some fiend has invented a prototype robotic reporter. I’m now competing with an ‘aggrievance’ (I believe that’s the collective noun for journalists) of freelance cyber-scribblers.
Still, not all robots are like that. Some of them might actually help us. For example, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) could use some support at the moment. As I write, it’s been announced that 50,000 operations are going to be cancelled.
Believe me, it’s no fun queueing for an operation. For some reason, it takes two weeks for a surgeon to write a letter to your doctor and post it second class. (Why didn’t someone buy them a computer? You can get one for less than £11 billion (€12.54 billion) these days, if you’re prepared to shop around. And, if you avoid the traditional NHS suppliers, the computer might even work!).
But under the current system, you can wait three years after your bike crash for an operation. By the time the surgeons hack away the scar tissue on your arm, the nerve they are trying to un-trap is dead anyway. So, having operated on you too late, they send you on your way with the cheery advice to expect ‘atrophy’ in your arm muscles.
Having been the subject of that case particular study, I’m suddenly in favour of robot surgeons. Let’s hope they can learn artificial empathy.
Artificial intelligence (AI) was founded as an academic discipline in 1956. Its founding logic was that any human activity, if broken down precisely enough, could be done by a machine if we put enough thought into the instructions.
I can see why surgeons might not give patients much thought. The theatre work alone would put most mortals into early retirement. Then there’s the emotional toll of dealing with patients, the constant pressure to update skills and keep up with the waves of research. Not to mention the politics. Anything that relieves them of any of those burdens is a good thing, surely.
An artificially intelligent robot can scan through Gigabytes of data at lightning speed. Researchers at the North Carolina School of Medicine used IBM Watson’s AI engine to examine 1,000 cancer diagnoses. In 99% of the cases Watson came up with the same treatment plans as the oncologists in a fraction of the time.
Watson has a limitless capacity to digest complex information without tiring. Which is possibly why, in 30% of cases, Watson spotted treatment options that physicians missed.
In London’s Princess Grace Hospital, they use a robot surgeon called MAKO for knee and hip replacements.
Sixty-four year-old Bernice Glatt had a third of her knee replaced by MAKO under a procedure from which the patient recovers much quicker than they would from traditional surgery, the hospital says.
The MAKO robot allows surgeons to plan and execute surgery more precisely. With an increasingly aged and obese population, the number of hip replacements will rise accordingly, so anything that can surgically cut the queue will pay for itself.
Robots can do things that humans can’t. Using a 3D virtual model created with the data from a CT scan, the MAKO robot can instantly calculate the optimal size and placement of the new implants, which is vital for correct bio-mechanical reconstruction.
Surgeons never listen to us mortals but, during the operation, they take guidance from MAKO. Using the knowledge from its pre-operative plan MAKO stops the surgeon straying outside pre-defined boundaries. This helps the scalpel wielder to remove the diseased bone and preserve the surrounding healthy bone and tissue.
The ‘outcomes’ (to use an NHS phrase) are much more accurate placements of implants and knee replacements which are smaller and feel more natural. The robot makes smaller incisions,creates fewer complications, causes less pain, leads to faster recovery times and, as a result of the accuracy of implant positioning, creates joints which last much longer for the patient. These improvements could all relieve the stress on the NHS.
As a bonus, a robot wouldn’t take a personal call from its builders halfway though a consultation and reassure spouses that they’ll be home soon, once they’re done with this patient.
So, bring on the Robo-Surgeons. If we can give them artificial emotional intelligence, even better.
The author of this blog is Nick Booth, freelance IT and communications writer