Robot taught to sew up patients after surgery

Alexandra Thompson
·3 min read
smart medical health care concept, surgery robotic machine use allows doctors to perform many types of complex procedures with more precision, flexibility and control than is possible
Artificial intelligence trained robots are already performing some surgeries. (Getty Images)

A robot has been “taught” to sew patients back together after surgery.

Incisions must be tightly closed to aid healing and ward off infections, so to reduce the space for error, scientists from the University of California in Berkeley have created Motion2Vec.

Read more: Two Plays on Robot-Assisted Surgery

The semi-supervised device “learnt” how to stitch surgical incisions by watching YouTube videos of doctors performing the procedure, breaking down their movements and then mimicking them.

Although the technology is in its infancy, the scientists hope Motion2Vec will one day support doctors by closing relatively simple incisions.

Doctor and nurse in the surgery room with a patient
Surgical incisions have to be tightly closed to aid healing and reduce the risk of infection. (Getty Images)

YouTube videos were chosen due to hundreds of hours of material being uploaded to the site every minute.

“There's a lot of appeal in learning from visual observations, compared to traditional interfaces for learning in a static way or learning from [mimicking] trajectories, because of the huge amount of information content available in existing videos,” lead developer Dr Ajay Tanwani told Engadget.

To ensure Motion2Vec could make sense of what it was watching, the scientists built an artificial intelligence (AI) network.

In simple terms, the robot’s arms could then be matched to the movements of the doctors’ limbs while sewing a patient up.

Read more: The Rise of Robots in Surgery Puts Spotlight on These 3 Stocks

Just 78 videos were required to train the device to 85.5% accuracy and an average 0.94 cm error in targeting the affected area, a study showed.

While the results are promising, it is expected to be years before a robot like this acts as a doctor’s “assistant” in the operating room.

Once the technology is there, medics could call upon the device to carry out smaller tasks, allowing them to “relax” and focus on the more complicated part of the operation, according to the Californian team.

Motion2Vec could also be used to help pick dead flesh out of wounds, they suggested.

Is AI the future of healthcare?

Dr Jörg Goldhahn, from ETH Zurich, previously warned that AI will eventually make doctors “obsolete”.

AI has a “near unlimited capacity” to diagnose diseases and perform surgery more accurately than medics, he said.

Dr Goldhahn argued robots may help overcome healthcare funding shortages due to them being cheaper to hire and train than humans.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Dr Vanessa Rampton, from McGill University in Montreal, has acknowledged AI may be a useful aid to medics, but argued it will never completely replace human healthcare.

“Computers aren't able to care for patients in the sense of showing devotion or concern for the other as a person, because they are not people and do not care about anything,” she said.

Read more: Global Robotic Surgery Devices Market Report

So-called Da Vinci robots are already performing life-saving surgery at University College London Hospitals on men with advanced prostate cancer.

Surgeons have credited them with being quicker and safer than existing treatments.

The Da Vinci, which is controlled by a surgeon at a computer console, has six arms with tiny scissors and pliers that make incisions in a patient’s abdomen.

It is able to remove small sections of tissue and glands affected by the cancer without making a large cut.

A Da Vinci console also made the headlines when it performed a hysterectomy and partial colon removal at the same time in April 2018.

Doctors praised the “precision” of the procedure, which led to reduced side effects for the patient.