Monday, October 16, 2017

Is an autonomous robot better than a human surgeon?

That was the headline on the website BGR [“a leading online destination for news and commentary focused on the mobile and consumer electronics markets”].

Engineers working with the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) claim it can cut skin and tissue with more precision than a surgeon.

A paper they presented last month at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems featured a video supposedly proving the point.

STAR works “by visually tracking both its intended cutting path and its cutting tool and constantly adjusting its plan to accommodate movement.” The intended cutting path must be marked by a human beforehand. So, it is not really autonomous; rather it is semi-autonomous.

The video can be seen in its entirety here or you can watch two excerpts below. The first is the robot using cautery to make a straight 5 cm skin incision which is compared to an unidentified surgeon cutting a similar incision. Watch approximately 15 seconds of this clip.



As you can see, the surgeon strays from the intended path about halfway through the process. But note that the surgeon is not holding the cautery the way most surgeons would use it. The proper way to hold the instrument is as if it were a pencil. No human could possibly cut a straight line holding the instrument as far away from the tip as the video depicts.

A second video shows the STAR excising a geometrically shaped pretend tumor.


Note: Although the video is being shown at 4X speed, it is still painfully slow. It is not clear what would happen if the robot encountered a blood vessel that bled despite the use of cautery, which by the way is not the instrument of choice for excising many tumors.

What we have here is a nice example of a “straw man” which is comparing a new technique against a phony one to make the new one look better.

Another website, IEEE Spectrum, went with this headline:

The headline should have read:


[Type straw man or artificial intelligence in the search field to your right on my blog site for more posts about these two topics.]

4 comments:

Steve B said...

So far robotic surgery has shown precious little advantage over a surgeon's hands (for the patient, anyway). You've probably seen this, which I saw just yesterday:
https://www.medpagetoday.com/hematologyoncology/prostatecancer/59333

Stay skeptical!

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Steve, I had seen it when it first came out, but thanks for reminding me about it. It made me smile again, just like I did before.

Don't worry. I will stay skeptical.

Old FoolRN said...

Cutting is over rated. It's suturing and putting stuff back together that counts.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

In one of my previous posts about AI, I discussed a paper by the same authors as this one. The robot was able to sew a very precise bowel anastomosis provided a human did all the dissection and lined up the bowel.

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