Autonomous Robot Sutures 'Superior' to Humans'

 (Wall Street Journal video)

Boy, here are three words you don't often see together:

Autonomous. Robot. Surgery.

Some think it could be coming our way -- at some point. The possibility came closer to reality after the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, or STAR, performed a suture on a pig's bowel, as documented in a paper published in Science Translational Medicine.

"Despite dynamic scene changes and tissue movement during surgery, we demonstrate that the outcome of supervised autonomous procedures is superior to surgery performed by expert surgeons ..." the paper says. "These results demonstrate the potential for autonomous robots to improve the efficacy, consistency, functional outcome, and accessibility of surgical techniques."

Here's a video report on SMART from The Wall Street Journal:


Cool! If you're not a surgeon, that is.

Wired, though, says those in the profession shouldn't pawn their forceps quite yet. Their article is headlined "Why An Autonomous Robot Won't Replace Your Surgeon Anytime Soon."

"... STAR was still dependent on a surgeon to make the initial incision, take out the bowel, and line up the pieces before it fired up its autonomous suturing algorithm. “When you drive a car you use cruise control. The same logic would apply for surgical technology,” says Peter Kim, a pediatric surgeon on the STAR team.

And although IEEE Spectrum gleefully reports "Autonomous Robot Surgeon Bests Humans in World First" (exclamation point implied), one expert who was interviewed party-pooped the development:

Blake Hannaford, a pioneer of autonomous surgical robotics at the University of Washington ... questioned the clinical significance of the task that STAR performed. “While in a technical sense, semi-autonomous suturing is a ‘grand challenge’ problem of surgical robotics, clinically much suturing and bowel anastomosis is done by staplers which can do the whole thing in seconds,” he wrote in an email. “Clearly the task they chose does not justify the elaborate equipment they used.”


But let's face it: Sooner or later, the robots are moving into health care.