A robot surgeon just performed an entire operation by itself. The STAR (Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot) robot reconnected segments of bowel in a pig and did everything autonomously. Human surgeons were part of the team, but only took a supervisory role, while remaining ready to hit the pause button and take over if needed.
There are plenty of robot-assisted surgeries, but this one, carried out by the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., was fully autonomous, from start to finish. The STAR bot was programmed by humans and then went to work. The result? Success.
“The current paradigm of robot-assisted surgeries (RASs) depends entirely on an individual surgeon’s manual capability,” say the new study’s authors. “Autonomous robotic surgery—removing the surgeon’s hands—promises enhanced efficacy, safety, and improved access to optimized surgical techniques.”
The problem is seeing what’s going on inside a body. The purplish, fleshy tones all tend to merge together, which means that human surgeons are needed for their trained eyes if not their shaky hands. STAR’s star component is a new vision system, which uses a combination of 3-D cameras and infra-red marking dye to help differentiate the tissues.
The system makes a constantly updated 3-D model of the area and then applies its autonomous suturing algorithm to the problem. This algorithm is based on “best human surgical practices” and constantly assesses how it’s doing. In these experiments, the system also monitored the tension of the suture thread and compared it to the pressure needed in the segment of bowel tube to keep it sealed. This is a delicate task: The suture needs to be tight enough not to leak, but not damage the tissue. The stitches also need to be close enough to prevent leaks, but with space to allow blood flow to promote healing.
The operation, as they say, was a success. “Supervised autonomy with STAR not only is feasible but also, by some metrics, surpasses the performance of accepted surgical techniques,” says the paper, published in Science Translational Medicine. The purpose of this study wasn’t to see if robots can replace human surgeons. Rather, the intent was to “expand human capacity and capability through enhanced vision, dexterity, and complementary machine intelligence for improved surgical outcomes.”
In this regard you can think of the STAR robot as a particularly clever tool, to be deployed to do certain jobs better than a human can. It will likely be a matter of time before patients go under the robot’s scalpel.