Let’s talk about robots. Not the kind that are going to take over the world and kill humanity, but the kind that are changing our lives for the better. As technology keeps advancing, robots are more and more able to help us with all kinds of things, from analyzing research to comforting children. We might not have our own personal robot maids (a la The Jetsons), but we’re well on our way.
Here’s a rundown of five ways in which robots are advancing the field of human healthcare.
Supercomputers are super helpful
For me, the journey to robot-awareness began with Watson—IBM’s supercomputer whose claim to fame was beating longest-running Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings on national TV. Before Watson could compete on the show, the computer scientists at IBM spent years « teaching » the supercomputer how to parse language the way humans do, a task much more advanced than the usual find-and-retrieve-data tasks we’re used to seeing computers do.
But Watson’s potential doesn’t stop with game shows. Among other uses, Watson has been put to work in hospitals analyzing patient records, identifying treatment options, and keeping up with the latest research developments. The idea isn’t for Watson to replace doctors but to assist them.
Where it might take an oncologist weeks to analyze a patient’s genome and determine the best cancer treatment, Watson can sort through the data in minutes. As Dr. Lukas Wartman, oncologist, says, « Speed is critical because cancer treatment is a race against fast-replicating cells. »
Eliminating human error
Analyzing data and deciding how to treat patients is all well and good, but what happens after that, when the patient needs hands-on care? GE is working on it—they’re developing a robot that can sort, sterilize, and prep surgical tools.
If this seems trivial, think again. Improper sterilization can have fatal consequences, and improper organization can delay surgeries—and both tasks are highly vulnerable to human error. GE’s new robot will deliver the sterilized tools in the right place, at the right time, and in the right order, allowing surgeons to focus on more important things (like, you know, actually performing surgery).
Teeny tiny robot arms
And speaking of robots aiding surgeons, the da Vinci Surgery group has developed a robot capable of performing minimally invasive microsurgery operations. The robots aren’t intended to replace human surgeons but to assist them in performing minute operations by enhancing precision, dexterity, control, and even vision. So far, the da Vinci System has been used in over 1.5 million surgeries worldwide.
Think of the children
RxRobots is focused on the patient-care aspect of healthcare, particularly for children. Their MEDI robots focus on easing the anxiety of pediatric patients, from dancing or playing games with a child to explaining a medical procedure and talking the child through it. Results have been positive so far, with a 50 % reduction in reported pain over the three years the robots have been in use at Alberta Children’s Hospital.
Nanobots aren’t just science fiction
Nanobots aren’t a new concept, but until recently, they were just that—a concept, something not actually put into practice. That’s all changed in the past few years.
Researchers at Caltech have been working on nanobots that will deliver medicines directly to cancerous tissue, thus targeting cancer cells more precisely than oral medications and sparing the rest of the body from absorbing harmful, sometimes debilitating, toxins. Scientists at UCSD have successfully injected nanobots into mice, showing not only that such a technique is safe on mammals but also that nanobots could be an improved way of getting medicines to stick to bodily tissue. And researchers at Bachelet Science are currently conducting the first human trial of cancer-killing nanobots that can be controlled remotely and used to target and kill cancer from inside the human body.
There are dozens more examples of current studies focusing on nanobots (too many to list here), so you can bet we’ll be hearing more about this futuristic-sounding technology before you can say « Open the pod bay doors, HAL. »
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