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Would You Trust a Robot Surgeon?
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승인 2019.11.19  11:20:44
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▲ Hong A-young, Assistant Professor, Robotics Engineering Convergence Major

    During the last Chuseok holiday, I was channel surfing at my parents' place and came across a documentary by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel. You might have heard of him because of his book 'Justice: What's the right thing to do'. In the documentary, he and about twenty members of the audience were arguing whether robots can replace humans and do our jobs including journalists, writers, UI designers, and medical doctors. A few days later, I raised similar questions to students during my lecture on medical robotics: Would you trust robot surgeons operating on you? If you could choose, would you prefer the very precise and dexterous robots or the very experienced surgeons? Guess the result of the poll. I remember the robot surgeons barely won but note that the students have majored in engineering and I assure you that the answer would be different if you are about to sign a consent form.
    The earliest applications of surgical robots were categorized as passive robots. They were mostly serving as tool holding devices which didn’t have direct contact with patients. The role of surgical robots has been expanding toward performing more complicated tasks such as bone drilling and tissue dissection, which were previously carried out by surgeons.
    One of the most established and successful surgical robotic systems is the da Vinci telesurgical system. It was first developed for open abdominal remote telesurgery and has extended to minimally invasive surgery in urology and cardiology. The da Vinci system works as follows: a surgeon sitting in the operating room sees a video capturing a patient and robots, the surgeon understands the remote situation, and controls a master device as if he/she is operating directly on the patient. The robot on the remote site then follows the motion of the master device and performs the surgery. The benefit of having this robotic system is that the surgical procedure can be carried out even when a patient and a surgeon are not in the same location. The increased dexterity of surgical tools is one other advantage of using robots.
    The domain of surgical robots is not only limited to following the dedicated motion but also to understand surgical environments and learn on their own. For example, referring to the earlier use of surgical robots, they hold the camera to visualize the procedure and automatically change their position to give the best view to the surgeons. More involved in the procedure, robots examine the demonstration of surgeons stitching soft tissue, learn the motion, and accomplish the procedure without human intervention. Surgical robots now no longer need to be told their motion one by one although this use of robots is not yet for clinical use.
    Our imagination does not let us remain at this stage. Have you thought about small robots moving inside our bodies and treating diseases? A swallowable capsule endoscope is already used to capture endoscopic videos throughout our gastrointestinal tract. Many groups of engineers and medical doctors are working on adding new features to the capsule endoscope such as biopsy and treatment using robotic technology. Tiny robots barely visible to the naked eye are also studied to travel through our vascular system, diagnose, and treat certain diseases. We, engineers, still need to tackle many technical questions to realize our imagination. However, the main key to introduce a new surgical robot is close collaboration with medical doctors. We together could demonstrate the right use for surgical robots, and then those robot surgeons will eventually gain public trust.

By Hong A-young, Assistant Professor, Robotics Engineering Convergence Major

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