Keystone, Salvatore Di Nolfi/AP
A medical student trains to use the da Vinci robot.

Medical Robot Performs Simulated Biopsy, Expands Possibilities of Medical Technology

February 12, 2009 01:12 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
Scientists have moved a step closer to creating robots that can conduct routine medical procedures on their own.

Breast Biopsy Robots

Researchers from Duke University are fine-tuning a robot that can perform a breast biopsy with little help from a human.

Engineers used a basic tabletop robot with “eyes” that used a 3-D ultrasound technology from Duke. An artificial intelligence program comprising the robot’s “brain” processed the 3-D information and gave the robot tasks to perform.

“After detecting the ‘lesion’ in a simulated breast, the robot was able to calculate its position and then guide a biopsy to its exact location,” Ned Light, an engineer, explained in an article by the Duke University Office of News and Communications.

Because the robot was able to safely conduct this test biopsy, Duke researchers say they can picture patients saving money by coming in for routine procedures performed by robots in a few years.

Experts have expressed other hopes for the role robots could play in medicine. “It’s easy to imagine a future where, if I need a medical specialist from afar [a robot] could remotely become his or her ‘eyes, hands, and ears,’” Joanne Pransky, a robot psychiatry expert, said in a CNN article in 2006.

Many U.S. hospitals already use the da Vinci robot system, which does not work on its own, but has a human at the helm. A surgeon controls micro-instruments on the system, which makes surgery less invasive for a patient and shortens recovery time.

Robots may have great potential, but CNN reported that they won’t replace humans in the medical profession entirely. In addition to helping with operations, robots could also aid nurses in performing their many tasks.

“But the core job a nurse does is to provide you with care, it’s a caring job, it’s an interpersonal job that has to be done by a human being, and there’s always going to be some premium on having that human contact,” Ian Pearson, a futurist-in-residence told CNN.

Related Topic: Other robotic advancements

In 2008, researchers announced considerable developments in the field of robotics. Argo Medical Technologies, a high-tech Israeli company led by engineer Amit Goffer, created an exoskeleton suit to help people who were unable to move their legs to walk.

Researchers also unveiled software that imitates the human “neural network,” allowing robots to “learn” from their mistakes. A video provided by researchers showed simulated animals and humans exploring their environment and learning, through trial and error, how to move around. The simulated human tried to stand up while the animal learned how to maneuver over a wall.

Professor Ralf Der at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics said, “It’s like a newborn baby—it doesn’t know anything but tries motions that are natural for its body. Half an hour later, it’s rolling and jumping.”

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