Harlan Ellison wrote the short story “Wanted in Surgery” in the 1960s, predicting robot surgeons. Auris Health might be the first real example.

Although the prolific writer never rose to mainstream popularity, the story has become timely. It follows a dejected former surgeon, out of work since robots replaced humans in that role. This story was science fiction up until recent times.

As of 2018, there are now robots that can perform medical procedures such as biopsies.

Could the Auris Health robot be the one to make Ellison’s future a definitive reality?

Auris Health
Image by Besjunior | Shutterstock

Can Robots Really Take the Place of Surgeons?

Although it’s been firmly in the realm of science fiction for decades, a future with automation isn’t that farfetched anymore. While the subject of jobs in an automation focused society matters on the whole, the subject of how robots might replace surgeons is a particularly treacherous territory.

Doctors and surgeons require decades of schooling, residencies, and experience. As such, they are paid a premium once they get to a certain point. They also have to deal with people and humanity at their weakest, sickest, and most vulnerable. Bless them (nurses and caretakers, too).

In Ellison’s story, the future of medicine all lies in the hands of surgeon robots. Human surgeons are practically obsolete until, of course, a situation arises that only a human could navigate.

Ellison’s robot surgeons didn’t think a patient could be saved, but the main character (the dejected surgeon) ended up saving the unsavable patient.

Ellison echoes a sentiment we here at Edgy Labs share: automation doesn’t automatically mean obsolescence. They are more pathways to achieving an end goal such as saving lives.

In pursuance of that goal, the Monarch Platform robot helps cancer patients.

image of Monarch Platform surgical robot for article Why This Robot Won't Replace Human Surgeons
Auris Health via Techcrunch

FDA Approval for Auris Health Surgical Robot

Frederic Moll, previously a surgical resident, went on to develop Auris Health. As reported in Bloomberg, Moll recounted a story about how laparoscopies used to be performed. They seemed incredibly dangerous to Moll.

The procedure is less dangerous now, but the experience sparked the urge in Moll to create a better way. His work over the last few decades has blossomed into the Monarch Platform.

This robot simplifies modern tactics with arms featuring a blue tube for camera manipulation. The arms can also steer surgical implements. It received FDA approval for use in human lungs under the control of a doctor on March 22nd, 2018.

As you can see in the image above, the doctor uses an Xbox-style controller to operate the robot arms. The doctor uses the controller to help spot signs of lung cancer in early stages.

As Moll told Techcrunch: “A CT scan shows a mass or a lesion…It doesn’t tell you what it is.” Discerning the severity of the mass or lesion can be frustrating and life-threatening.

In order to reduce invasive procedures, the Monarch Platform is first tackling bronchoscopies. The hope is to augment diagnosis and treatment timelines.

It also shares some similarities to the da Vinci, another surgical robot. This comes as no surprise as the founders of Auris Health also helped develop the da Vinci.

That founder is Frederic Moll via his company Intuitive Surgical.

image of JD and Turk from Scrubs singing their Steak Night song for article Why This Robot Won't Replace Human Surgeons
Scrubs | ABC via BuzzFeed

The Future of the Operating Room: Robots and Humans Together

In the future, Auris Health plans to expand the scope of the Monarch Platform to include other endoscopies.

A critique of the da Vinci includes that physicians cannot alter the proprietary code. This prevents them from developing unique ways of utilizing the hardware or software.

It also prevents the development of the same kinds of relationships human surgical teams develop. This includes instincts, but also a team dynamic you develop after years of working with someone and learning their style, their fears, and their strengths.

In a sense, collaboration and customization could be useful in fostering a human/robot relationship as coworkers. As mentioned earlier, robots are not replacements for human in the world of automation.

They are extra hands, another tool, a bigger self, or even a partner. This bronchoscopy robot will adapt with the times, but will the company it came from?

The Monarch Platform incorporates the controller approach now, but the interface could adapt as new technology comes available. Don’t worry though: Harlan Ellison’s bleak future of out of work surgeons is far from becoming reality.

The original collection of stories in which “Wanted in Surgery” appeared is called “Paingod and Other Delusions” available on Amazon for purchase.

What other ways could surgical robots increase a surgeon’s chances of a successful surgery or diagnosis of lung cancer?

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