We are at a crucial juncture in the field of robotics. We stand at the cusp of a massive shift in the way that we interact with the world and go about our daily lives. Every day, new discoveries are being made that push us inevitably toward a future where the majority of work is done not by us mere humans, but by robots instead.
The rise of automation and the replacement of workers by machinery is not something that is necessarily “new”. It’s an issue as old as the concept of technology, that has really begun to seem more urgent in the last half-century or so as robots become capable of doing more types of work.
But while many focus on the effects automation has on factory workers and unskilled laborers, it was generally thought that people with high-skill careers, such as doctors, would be safe from the coming rise of the machines. Turns out, that may not be the case.
That’s right. Robotics experts have set their sights on the medical field. Many believe that an autonomous robot could soon be a regular member of any hospital’s medical staff performing all sorts of duties like taking a patient’s vitals, reading case notes, or even performing surgery!
And even if developments like that are farther in the future than experts predict, doctor-controlled robots already have a massive presence in the medical field, and demand for the less invasive, more patient-tailored procedures that can be accomplished with them is only growing.
Is this the beginning of a robot apocalypse? No.
Can these robots make us immortal? No.
Will this make prostate exams less awkward? Honestly… No, probably not.
But what this means is that the medical field is on the brink of sweeping changes that could mean better diagnostics, safer and less-invasive surgery, shorter waiting times, reduced infection rates, and increased long-term survival rates for everyone. And that is definitely something to be excited about.
So without further ado, here are the top fifteen advancements in medical robotics that are going to change your life, and one day, just maybe… put your doctor out of a job!
We begin with perhaps the most ubiquitous of medical robots, and the standard for Robot-Assisted Surgery. This is a machine that blurs the line between “robot” and “medical tool” since the device is always under the full control of the surgeon, but the advancements it has fostered are astounding.
Using the daVinci system, some types of operations can be done with just a few tiny incisions and with the utmost precision, which means less bleeding, faster healing, and a reduced risk of infection.
And while daVinci has been around for almost eighteen years now, it kept getting more and more advanced, but with big tech companies quick on daVinci’s heels to develop similar systems with more autonomous features and a wider range of abilities, who knows what’s next in this field.
2. Actuated and sensory prostheses
The field of prosthetics has advanced so much in the past few years that the question is no longer, “can we make a suitable replacement for a limb,” but rather, “can we make something even better than nature.”
At the MIT Biomechatronics lab, researchers have created gyroscopically actuated robotic limbs that are capable of tracking their own position in three-dimensional space and adjusting their joints upwards of 750 times per second.
On top of this, they have developed bionic skins and neural implant systems that interface with the nervous system, allowing the user to receive tactile feedback from the prosthetic and volitionally control it as you would a normal limb.
This is a monumental leap forward in the unification of man and machine, and could soon be a great relief for the over 2 million amputees in the US alone.
An endoscopy is a procedure where a small camera on a long wire is inserted into the body through a “natural opening” to search for damage, foreign objects, or traces of a disease. It’s an uncomfortable and delicate procedure that might also be a thing of the past.
New improvements to the procedure by companies like Medineering make use of slender, flexible robots that can be driven like an RC car to the exact spot the doctor needs.
They can then hold there without the tremor of human hands, and deploy a wide range of tools for anything from taking a biopsy to cauterizing a wound.
Even more impressive are so-called “capsule endoscopies” where the procedure is boiled down to the simple act of swallowing a pill-sized robot that travels along your digestive tract, gathering data and taking pictures that can be sent directly to a processor for diagnostics.
4. Orthoses (AKA Exoskeletons)
We all want to be Iron Man at least a little bit, but robotic exoskeletons have more medical applications than superhero ones. For starters, they are being used to help paralyzed people walk again, which is nothing short of a miracle.
They can also be useful for correcting malformations or, say, for rehabilitation after a brain or spinal cord injury by providing weak muscles with the help they need to perform movements and begin healing the damage.
Most of these exoskeletons work through a combination of user input and pre-set movements, but with advancements in neural interfaces, it is only a matter of time before a directly mind-controlled exoskeleton is widely available.
5. Targeted therapy micro-robot
Although relatively new, this is a highly promising type of medical robot. Basically, they use near-microscopic mechanical particles to locally deliver a drug or other therapy to a specific target site within the body.
This could be used to deliver radiation directly to a tumor, or to reduce the side effects of the medication by confining it to the organ where it is needed.
What’s really interesting here though is how the particles get to the target. There are a variety of possible methods, but new research has included micro-bots with tiny, helical tails that can be directed by magnetic fields to spin themselves forward through blood vessels to a specific spot in the body. Neat!
6. Disinfectant bots
The unfortunate truth is that hospitals are extremely dirty places. You may go there for treatment, only to leave with an entirely new sickness.
And since hospitals routinely administer large amounts of antibiotics, they can become a breeding ground for some of the toughest antibiotic-resistant bacteria around.
That’s why it’s so important that hospital rooms be clean, but why leave that cleaning up to error-prone humans when you have a robot?
Modern disinfecting robots move autonomously to rooms of patients being discharged then bombard the empty room with high-powered UV rays for several minutes until no microorganism is left alive.
7. Clinical Training Bots
Imagine the cult classic game Operation, but it's life-sized with realistic blood-action, and instead of losing, you fail med-school. That’s basically what clinical training bots are.
Now, I’ll admit, this one may not sound as exciting as some of the others on the list, but consider this: until now, surgeons have mostly just been learning on the job or on cadavers. Yeah… Suddenly training robots seem a lot more important.
8. Companion bots
Not all the medical problems robots can fix have to be life-threatening. The fact is that there are millions of elderly, infirm, or mentally disabled people in the world who suffer from chronic loneliness and lack stimulation.
These patients also tend to be people who require regular check-ups from caretakers, which can be a problem in areas where there are shortages of professional caretakers. Companion robots solve both of these problems at once and are truly making life better for a lot of people.
Think of them like a Tamagotchi-Alexa crossover that can also call an ambulance if you fall down.
BUDDY, a new entry into the market, even interacts with its owners on an ever-changing emotional level and won the 2018 Best of Innovation Award for its advancements.
9. Telepresence Robot Surrogates
You have probably seen a telepresence surrogate before as the butt of a joke on a TV show or in a trendy start-up office. They look like iPads set on top of a mini Segway, which is inherently silly.
But the truth is, they have actually found a key role in the medical field as a way to bring top doctors and diagnostic expertise to underserved communities and far-flung parts of the world.
Doctors in New York are now able to speak with patients and local physicians in rural India, sharing their knowledge and consulting on diagnoses in real-time for a fraction of the cost and effort of having to travel there in person. So, silly as it may seem, it’s entirely possible that your next annual check-up might be with a remote-controlled tablet instead of a physical person.
10. Robotic nurses
Nurses are miracle workers and the true life-blood of any medical setting. But they are also hopelessly overworked and chronically short on time, not to mention in short supply in many places. That’s where robotic nurses come in. For the most part, these are systems that can fill out digital paperwork, take measurements of vital signs, and monitor a patient’s condition.
Some new robotic nurses have taken aim at other menial tasks that nurses get stuck with, like moving carts and gurneys from room to room, or even drawing blood! At the end of the day, if it’s saving nurses time and allowing everyone to take better care of patients, We're all for it.
Think of this basically like a really big vending machine—but for drugs! Honestly, this is one of those inventions where you hear about it and think, “Oh yeah, it’s not like I need a physical person to count out and hand me the pills my doctor prescribed. How come that doesn’t exist yet?” Well, it exists now!
A proof of concept pharmacy has been operating flawlessly at the University of California, San Francisco, for almost five years and more have been approved for hospital use.
12. AI diagnostics
This is perhaps the task in which robots can do the most for medicine. Using machine learning, scientists can train an AI to perform a task better than a human by essentially providing it with thousands of examples.
The uses for this kind of tool in diagnostics are far-reaching, but there are a couple worth noting, such as the FDNA system which uses facial recognition software to screen patients for over 8000 diseases and rare genetic disorders with an impressive degree of accuracy.
Or the New York University team that created an AI capable of scanning thousands of medical documents to pinpoint patients at risk of developing diabetes, heart failure, or stroke. In the future, robots may be the first port of call for giving a diagnosis.
13. Robotic-Assisted Biopsy
This is a very cool and potentially life-saving advancement lead by a project called MURAB (MRI and Ultrasound Robotic Assisted Biopsy.)
It is a minimally invasive technique for early cancer diagnoses where a robotically steered transducer is guided to a biopsy site by a novel MRI/Ultrasound combination technique.
It then scans the target to get overall data on it and then a surgeon can pick from the 3D-image created exactly where they want to get a biopsy from. Then the robot just backs out the same way it came in, leaving the patient with little more than a paper-cut.
14. AI epidemiology
AI can be VERY good at seeing patterns and making predictions from data that would be simply overwhelming to humans, which is why epidemiology was a logical target for a new AI system. You are already seeing AI-enabled robots being used to fight the pandemic.
These algorithms analyze data on disease outbreaks from doctors on the ground and cross-references that with all available medical databases to predict when and where an outbreak is happening, as well as how to keep it from spreading.
Though many products are appearing in the field, one of the coolest is the AIME system which has been deployed against outbreaks of dengue fever in Malaysia just this year with a nearly 85% accurate prediction rate, saving thousands of lives and potentially millions of dollars.
15. Antibacterial nanorobots
Last but not least, we come to the robot with undoubtedly the coolest name EVER. But what they do is even cooler.
Antibacterial nanorobots are tiny machines made of gold nanowires (bling-bling) coated with platelets and red blood cells that could actually clear bacterial infections directly from a patient’s blood.
They do this by basically mimicking a bacterium and its toxin’s target, then ensnaring them in their nanowire mesh when the bacteria gets near.
They can even be directed through a patient’s body with targeted ultrasound to speed up the clearance process and to treat localized infections.
Best of all, because they take advantage of the bacteria’s natural responses to clear them from the system, nanorobots could potentially be used in place of broad-spectrum antibiotics which could have an immense impact on our fight against the rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases.
How do you think robots will reshape the medical field? Meanwhile, one of these robots may take over the world.