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The Past, Present, and Future of Robotics: Interview with Rich Mahoney, Director of Robotics Engineering at SRI (Part 3)

Posted on Sunday, Nov 24th 2013

Sramana Mitra: I think the way to think about it is from different societies, where there is a lot more use of services and a lot more domestic help. In American society that help is there, but probably in the more affluent class of society and not as penetrated into the broad mass of society. If you look at lawn mowing, for example, I could see a parallel of the Roomba technology.

Rich Mahoney: There are lawn mowers like that available right now. I think another entry path to look at is the da Vinci Surgical System – this is da Vinci’s surgical robot. There are three or four thousand of these robots now placed in hospitals throughout the world, and there are around 500,000 procedures a year that are done with them. This robot is a medical device that is still being introduced. But the way it is used is you have a surgeon who is sitting at a control panel and remotely controls this robot that is designed to be inserted inside a patient in a minimally invasive way. Then there is a one-to-one correspondence between the movement of the surgeon’s hands and the motion of the robot. There are definitely advantages for the patient in terms of better outcomes, reduced length of stay, and reduced infections. A lot of doctors couldn’t do that surgery because of the difficulty in using laparoscopic tools, which are basically hand tools. But they can do it using the da Vinci robot. It allows a very skilled surgeon to actually have more skill in carrying out a difficult procedure.

This idea of having the robot working closely with the person enabled a new kind of task. In all of those procedures, every single movement of the surgeon is measured and monitored. There is a video that is documenting everything, and all the sensor information is know. At some point we are going to start using that information to create a better understanding of what is going on in the surgical process and what the drivers of quality are in terms of the surgery and its outcomes.

Over time, we will be able to build more capability into the robots to make sure the best known quality is able to be performed. At some point you will see the amount of training and the acceptability of this tool to a broader set of trained people is going to allow more people to get access to higher quality surgical procedures. We often talk about having equal access to healthcare, but what we really want is equal access to equal quality healthcare. By using a robot, you could end up having the best quality care, and that care could be extended to anybody in any location. This could be done cost effectively to people who don’t have access to it.

By understanding how a robot is used in a medical application with a person in the loop, you can start to conceive of a home care worker or a cleaning service that is logging on to a robot – similar how a surgeon logs on to da Vinci – and providing those services to people. Any kind of food preparation or other kinds of home-based activities could be accomplished that way.

This segment is part 3 in the series : The Past, Present, and Future of Robotics: Interview with Rich Mahoney, Director of Robotics Engineering at SRI
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