A newly developed robot was able to complete a pig intestine surgery on its own and better than human surgeons, a new research has shown.

Advancements in artificial intelligence coupled with robotics are on the rise because of the numerous advantages they pose, but some express concern that they could be replacing human workers, particularly in health care.

Every year, more than 50 million people undergo risky surgeries in the U.S., with thousands dying due to errors in surgery. A past study even revealed that half of total post-surgical complications are due to errors of the surgeon.

Since robots have previously helped in hospital settings, the researchers programmed a Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) which turned out to perform a better pig intestine surgery than human surgeons.

Without any help from humans, STAR was able to stitch the pig's bowels consistently — evenly spaced and more durable than what humans can do. Thanks to STAR, the pig is expected to have fewer complications.

What Makes STAR Better Than Human Surgeons?

Surgeons have good vision, skilful hands, and a wealth of information about which procedures to perform for a particular patient. Kim and his colleagues wanted to clone these skills and apply them to an experimental robot.

STAR has autonomous operation, which makes it capable of performing tasks on its own. It has near infrared imaging and 3D camera that allow it to see minute details inside the body that humans cannot. The robot is also equipped with minimally invasive surgical tools and force sensor so it can gauge suture tightness. STAR was also programmed to learn appropriate surgical techniques to perform for several scenarios.

By doing the open bowel surgery, STAR performed better than human surgeons in all aspects — whether the human surgeons used hands, laparoscopic, or robot assistant.

STAR was able to operate on a scale of as much as 60 percent on the intestines with no adjustments from its human counterpart.

"Even though we take pride in our surgical procedures, to have a machine or tool that works with us in assuring better outcome safety and reducing complications is a tremendous benefit," said senior author and pediatric surgeon Dr. Peter Kim.

Will Robots Replace Human Surgeons?

"The purpose wasn't to replace surgeons, but if you have an intelligent tool that works with a surgeon, can it improve the outcome?" asked Dr. Kim, who is also an associate surgeon-in-chief of the Children's National Health System and vice-president of Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation.

The robot was consistently monitored and guided by surgeons who are also in the operating room. The robotic movements simply complement the actions of the human surgeon.

Kim explained that STAR is a mere motorized tool controlled by surgeons. "It has no intelligence whatsoever," Kim said.

The Future Of Healthcare Robotics

Senior editor Megan Frisk of the journal Science Translational Medicine where the study was published on May 4 said STAR is a promising development for robotics that could significantly help lower human errors in providing healthcare. More studies should be done to back the development before it can be used for more intricate surgeries, however.

Weill Cornell Medical College associate professor of surgery Dr. Rasa Zarnegar said healthcare embracing robotics is inevitable because some of the surgical operations are better performed when automated.

People will accept robotic surgeries especially if these provide better and safer outcomes, said Zarnegar. Because STAR was only able to perform four successful pig intestine surgeries, Zarnegar believes that tests must be carried out on a larger scale before these could be considered successful. 

While STAR has not done any human surgeries so far, Kim believes that the robot surgeon could be in hospital in two to three years' time.

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