World-leading heart surgery has been carried out at a Leicester hospital in the UK, by surgeons using a remote-controlled robot arm. Because X-rays are used to allow the doctor to monitor what is going on inside the patient, it means that doctors standing close to the patient wear radiation shields such as lead aprons which are burdensome. Long procedures can lead to fatigue in the staff and high cumulative radiation exposure. Through the use of a robotic arm, surgeons can remain in an adjacent room.
The procedure involved inserting catheters into the heart chambers through blood vessels at the top of the groin. The catheters have electrodes attached to them which are used to identify abnormalities in the heart’s natural electrical transmission system, usually the cause of heart rhythm problems. The catheters were then used to burn, the abnormal area, curing the problem.
The department at Glenfield Hospital performs more than 600 of the catheter procedures each year, although this is the first to use a robotic arm. The Remote Catheter Manipulation System, from Catheter Robotics Inc of New Jersey, US, has been in development for four years. The Leicester team is the first in the world to use it in human patients.
Imagine this scenario. A man is lying unconscious on a table whilst a mechanical spider descends from the ceiling. Its steel arms enter his abdomen, probing. After a while it emerges with one arm holding a sealed plastic bag with tissue in it. Science fiction or horror. Neither, this is fact. Da Vinci robots are in use in over 1000 locations around the world. The da Vinci system means the surgeon no longer handles the instruments directly, but via a computer console. This allows greater precision, as large hand gestures can be scaled down to small instrument movements, and any hand tremor is eliminated. The surgeon need not be in the same hospital, or even on the same continent as the patient.
However, the future is miniaturising these robots so that they can enter the human body. This is not yet the fantasy of Disney’s Fantastic Voyage, or Startrek’s medical nano-bots. This is the reality of trials that have been taking place over the last few years with a view to human trials in the near future. The age of the “mini-medibot” is upon us. There are a multitude of devices being suggested. At Imperial College, London, their i-Snake can reach places hard to get to with conventional surgery, and is controlled by the surgeon using a vision tracking device. Another medibot under development, the Inchworm, is just 20mm long and crawls along to the heart, controlled by a joystick, where it can take tissue samples or inject stem cells. This particulat medibot seems gargantuan compared to one in development which is 5 millimetres long and just 1 millimetre in diameter, with 16 vibrating legs. Elsewhere, ophthalmic surgeons are working with engineers to develop medibots small enough to be injected in to the eye using a conventional syringe, and having done its job the medibot bio-degrades and even the small metal parts are absorbed in to the body where they are excreted.
How long before we have these medibots permanently in our bodies keeping us in tiptop condition? See the short New Scientist video in my vodpod section.
A shop in Tokyo, Takashimaya, is experimenting with a robot shop assistant which is capable of dealing with enquiries from shoppers. The robot’s name is Saya and she was created by staff at the Tokyo University of Science in 2004. Prior to this experiment in the retail sector the robot was used in a primary school. Saya can respond to shoppers’ enquiries in seven hundred ways, and will direct shoppers to the right department or floor, or even to the nearest toilet. Saya can also make ‘small talk’ with customers. It is interesting to note that Japanese shoppers are uncertain how to respond to Saya, resorting to their innate politeness, even bowing to Saya to say thank you when they have received directions. Alan Turing must be viewing this experiment with some interest.