As we hurtle towards a future filled with robots and artificial intelligence, there’s a lot of talk about the potential downsides.
Some worry about the loss of jobs to automation.
Others fear that’ll be the least of our worries once the robots have killed us all.
So how about some good news?
How about a robot being developed that can help revolutionize one of the most important aspects of humanity – healthcare – in a positive way?
That’s exactly what Versius hopes to do.
Or the team behind it, at least. As a medical robot, Versius itself isn’t a sentient being.
Not yet, anyway.
Developed by Cambridge Medical Robotics in the UK, Versius specializes in laparoscopic procedures – or keyhole surgery – and brings a wealth of benefits for both those undertaking the operations and those being operated on.
As it speeds up the surgical process, decreases recovery time and reduces costs, it’s more than just its patients’ skin that Versius will be cutting.
In a world where medical bills are never far from the news – see the botched repeal of Obamacare in the US or the apparent Conservative destruction of the NHS in the UK – it’s a sad fact that the money-saving benefit of Versius that will be the one that appeals to most.
The robot itself has been created up to now on a budget, using low-cost technology originally designed for cell phones.
Cambridge Medical Robotics also saved time by copying an existing design for how Versius will look and operate. That design is the human arm, and it was copied for good reason.
As Luke Hares, chief technology officer at Cambridge Medical Robotics explained, “When science wants to solve a problem, it often turns to nature. We took our inspiration from the human arm, the greatest surgical tool in history.
“Whereas traditional industrial robotic arms are large and the wrists have three joints, our robot is the same size as a human arm and has four wrist joints, giving the surgeon an unprecedented level of freedom to operate on the patient from whatever angle they want, versatility and reach.”
Cambridge Medical Robotics chief executive Martin Frost added more on why Versius can be a game-changer in the world of surgery.
The short version is that it’s far easier to use than older medical robots, takes up around a third of the space needed by current machines, and surgery done by it will be no more expensive than that done completely by hand.
“Our robot does all of this and is the first robotic arm to be designed specifically for laparoscopic surgery,” said Frost.
“Having robots in the operating theatre is not a new idea. The problem at the moment is that they are phenomenally expensive – not only do they cost £2m (approx. $2.6m) each to buy but every procedure costs an extra £3,000 (approx. $4,000) using the robot – and they are very large.
“Many hospitals have to use the operating theatre around the robot. Their size can also make them difficult for the surgical team to use.
“They are also poorly utilized; they are only really used for pelvic surgery, and can’t be easily adapted to other types of surgery. In some hospitals they are only being used once every other day.”
Versius is due to be launched in spring 2018.
With surgeons needing time to be get trained to use it, it’s estimated that it will become available for procedures by the end of that year.
If Versius is a success, and we hope it is, it could mitigate some of the fears many have of our robot-infused future.
By aiding rather than replacing surgeons, our best-trained lifesavers can be sure their jobs are safe.
And if war does happen with the machines, at least we’ll have one of them on our side to help remove the bullets and shrapnel.