Will robots take over medicine?

Robots have the potential to contribute to medicine in three ways:  diagnosis, operations and rehabilitation.  Their impact in helping with operations has already been enormous – in the year 2000 there were 1,000 robo-surgeries but by 2015 this had increased to 570,000 and the industry will be worth about $14 billion in 2018.  The argument propelling robo-surgery is about cost and efficacy with robots able to make more precise incisions as well as allowing the human surgeon to get through more operations.

Well-known medical robotics systems are the da Vinci robot owned by Intuitive Surgical and the MAKO which was acquired by Stryker four years ago.  These companies are priced on the assumption that the field of robots in medicine will grow steadily in profitability with Stryker valued at 22 times its annual earnings and Intuitive Surgical at about 40 times.  These systems can expect increasing demand from baby-boomers with ageing joints, hearts and prostates.

Public perceptions of robots usually imagine autonomous machines with legs, but in fact they are m much more likely to have “arms” and their autonomy is a matter of degree.  In the case of diagnostics the physical aspects of the robots are not usually the important part – that is the software systems that can recognise patterns in scans and x-rays as well as learning from experience.  The latest developments in machine learning and analysis of big data mean that their importance will increase very fast.  Our desire to personify systems makes us tend to think in terms of robots even when really what is helping is increasingly sophisticated software such as IBM’s “Watson”.  Diagnosis can include scanning chest x-rays or it can be more like a traditional GP in asking patients to explain their symptoms over the phone – the NHS is experimenting in London with “chatbots” which screen non-emergency phone calls (to 111).  Babylon Health, the supplier in this case, believes that robots will soon be able to diagnose patients more accurately as well as faster than GPs.

The third area of robotics in medicine is rehab – the rehabilitation of patients, for example after an operation or a cardiac episode, and progress was on display at this summer’s ICORR (July 2017 conference on Rehab Robotics) where the main thrust was on clinical delivery of robotic solutions.  These are particularly useful in neurorehabilitation – helping people recover after a stroke sometimes through socially interactive robots.  There has also been progress in assistive devices, wearable devices and prosthetics.  The lines between patients and robots and doctors and robots can become blurred but just as most people are increasingly relying on their smart phones, patients and physicians are increasingly dependent on their robots.  Even if they aren’t taking over, robots are here to stay.

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