Magazine article The Futurist

The Rise of Bionic Surgery

Magazine article The Futurist

The Rise of Bionic Surgery

Article excerpt

The term "robotic surgery" conjures images of machines performing heart transplants or surgeons in the Bahamas directing delicate procedures thousands of miles away via the Internet. These scenarios are mostly fantasy, according to Allison Okamura of the Johns Hopkins University Department of Mechanical Engineering. She says that the real potential of robotic surgery--or rather computer-enhanced surgery--is to make surgeons more present in the operating room, rather than less so.

Haptic systems are a particularly promising area of research in the field of robotics. Haptics involve making robotic surgical instruments more sensitive to human touch and, reciprocally, allowing robot tools to convey sensory tactile data to the doctors who wield them. Okamura and her team have developed a haptic system that helps doctors view how much pressure their robotic instruments are applying to a given area. This sort of research will enable surgeons to better perform minimally invasive surgeries.

"The advantages [of computer-enhanced surgery] don't really have much to do with artificial intelligence or autonomous robots that do surgery by themselves. It's really about enhancing the capability of the surgeon in a way that maintains the minimally invasive approach," she says.

Another potential use of this technology is helping surgeons to better visualize the anatomical landscape during a procedure. Doctors have long used scopes and lenses to examine surgical areas prior to performing operations, and, of course, X-rays have been in use for nearly a century. Within the next 10 years, 3-D scanning and high-resolution image projection will allow surgeons to "see" the area of operation in an entirely new way.

"For example," says Okamura, "if someone is going in for a surgery for a liver tumor, that person has probably had some preoperative images, maybe a CT scan or an MRI, that have allowed the surgeon to acquire an image beforehand of what the tissue looks like. With the system that our center is developing, you can take those preoperative images and basically overlay them, visually, on top of the actual patient, so the surgeon would really know where to put his tools in order to reach the desired target. He wouldn't be looking at the patient and looking up at a picture and looking back and forth, trying to do all of these complex transformations in his head. Instead, the surgeon can just look right at the target anatomy and have this advanced visualization. We call that augmented reality. So, instead of virtual reality, we're combining virtual information, which is the preoperative imaging from the patient, and overlaying it onto the real world. …

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