15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever

Advancements in medical robotics are creating a world where robots may play a bigger role in healing the sick than doctors.
Donovan Alexander
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  • We stand at the cusp of a massive shift in how we interact with the world and go about our daily lives.
  • Every day, 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.
  • One major field is the world of medical sciences.

The rise of automation and the replacement of workers by machinery is not necessarily “new.” It’s an issue as old as the concept of technology that has 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 machines. It turns out that may not be the case.

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. But this means 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 something to be excited about.

So without further ado, here are the top fifteen advancements in medical robotics that will change your life—and one day, just maybe, put your doctor out of a job!

1. daVinci is changing the surgery

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
daVinci has greatly improved invasive surgery.

daVinci is one of the oldest and most widely used medical robots in the world. An example of Robot-Assisted Surgery, this machine blurs the line between “robot” and “medical tool” since the device is always under the surgeon's complete control. Still, 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, with big tech companies quick on daVinci’s heels to develop similar systems with more autonomous features and a more comprehensive range of abilities; who knows what’s next in this field.

2. Actuated and sensory prostheses are incredible

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 capable of tracking their 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. 

3. Capsule endoscope robots are incredible feats of engineering

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
Capsule endoscopes have been a game changer.

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 use 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 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) are only just getting into their stride

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
Robotic exoskeletons will only get better with time.

We all want to be Iron Man at least a little bit, but robotic exoskeletons have more medical applications than superhero ones. They are being used to help paralyzed people walk again.

They can also help correct 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 user input and pre-set movements. Still, 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-robots are changing lives

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
Targeted therapy microbots are incredible.

Although relatively new, this is a highly promising type of medical robot. They use near-microscopic mechanical particles to deliver a drug or other therapy locally to a specific target site within the body.

This could be used to deliver radiation directly to a tumor or reduce the medication's side effects by confining it to the organ where it is needed.

What’s interesting here is how the particles get to the target. There are various possible methods, but new research has included micro-bots with tiny, helical tails that magnetic fields can direct to spin themselves forward through blood vessels to a specific spot in the body. Neat! 

6. Disinfectant robots are vital

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
Autonomous cleaning robots are making hospitals safer places to go.

The unfortunate truth is that hospitals are filthy places. You may go 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 most brutal antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

That’s why hospital rooms must 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 and then bombard the space with high-powered UV rays for several minutes until no microorganism is left alive.

7. Clinical training robots are vital for training new medics

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
Source: Pixabay

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.

While not as exciting as others on the list, until now, surgeons have mostly just been learning on the job or cadavers. By using realistic proxies for human patients, the experience gained through using such robots is priceless.

8. Companion robots are a glimpse into the future

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
Companion robots can change lives.

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 require regular check-ups from caretakers, which can be a problem in areas with shortages of professional caretakers. Companion robots solve both issues simultaneously and make life better for many people.

Think of them like a Tamagotchi-Alexa crossover that can call an ambulance if you fall.

One example, BUDDY, 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 help professionals and patients around the world

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
Source: Telepresence Options

You have probably seen a telepresence surrogate as the butt of a joke on a TV show or in a trendy start-up office. But the truth is, they have found a key role in the medical field to bring top doctors and diagnostic expertise to underserved communities and far-flung parts of the world.

Doctors in New York can now 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 traveling there in person. So, silly as it may seem, your next annual check-up might be with a remote-controlled tablet instead of a physical person.

10. Robotic nurses are not just a thing of science fiction

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
Robotic nurses are becoming more common.

Nurses are miracle workers and the true lifeblood 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. Mostly, these systems can fill out digital paperwork, take vital signs measurements, and monitor a patient’s condition.

Some new robotic nurses have aimed 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. 

11. Pharmabotics are helping save valuable time for pharmacists

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
This is a giant vending machine for medicines.

Think of this as a vast vending machine—but for drugs! 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 are getting ever more sophisticated

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
AI-powered patient diagnostics is a sign of things to come.

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 providing thousands of examples.

The uses for this kind of tool in diagnostics are far-reaching. Still, 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 impressive 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 is making routine surgery safer

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
Source: US Air Force

Another exciting and potentially life-saving advancement comes from 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 comprehensive data on it, and then a surgeon can pick from the 3D image created precisely where they want to get a biopsy. Then the robot backs out the same way it came in, leaving the patient with little more than a paper cut.

14. AI epidemiology is incredibly accurate

AI can be very good at seeing patterns and making predictions from data that overwhelm humans, so epidemiology was a logical target for a new AI system. You already see AI-enabled robots being used to fight the pandemic. 

These algorithms analyze data on disease outbreaks from doctors on the ground and cross-reference that with all available medical databases to predict when and where an outbreak is happening and 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 will change everything

15 ways in which robots are changing medical sciences forever
Medical nanobots will change everything.

Antibacterial nanorobots are tiny machines made of gold nanowires (bling-bling) coated with platelets and red blood cells that could clear bacterial infections directly from a patient’s blood.

They do this by mimicking a bacterium and its toxin’s target, then trapping 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 treat localized infections.

Best of all, because they take advantage of the bacteria’s natural responses to clear them from the system, nanorobots could be used instead of broad-spectrum antibiotics, which could have an immense impact on our fight against the rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases.

And that is your lot for today.

These 15 robots represent just a fraction of the many innovative technologies helping improve patient outcomes, increase efficiency, and enhance the overall quality of care. From surgical robots to rehabilitation robots, these machines are making it possible to perform complex procedures with greater precision, speed, and safety. As we look to the future, imagining the new possibilities emerging as these technologies continue to evolve and advance is exciting.

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