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Robots feel the flesh

An eye ready to cut

Does the idea of a robot cutting into your eye with a scalpel make you shudder? Surgical robots have a major advantage over direct human surgery. They eliminate hand tremor. At the moment it isn' an autonomous robot doing the surgery, but one controlled by a surgeon. In the old days all surgery was done directly with the surgeon holding a knife and feeeling the flesh as it was cut into. That ability to feel and the dexterity of a human hand is important to a surgeon. In recent years keyhole surgery has taken over for many operations. Rather than opening you up, a small cut is made through which a minute camera can be put together with instruments that in effect areono the end of a wire. This has several problems - the surgeon loses the important sense of touch, their dexterity with the scalpel is reduced, and the natural tremor of their hand is magnified by the long tools.

Try pointing your finger at something at arm's length. Focus on the tip of your finger. Keep it absolutely still if you can...if you can your are either a trained marksman or your heart isn't beating. That tremor is what a surgeon has to control. A robot doesn't - even if its just following the actions of the human.

Computer interfaces have focussed on our sense of sight - we see the information presented by the computer. Sight is only one of our senses though. We use the others in very subtle ways without noticing, until we lose the sense. The sense of touch is one such sense, and computer scientists are starting to restore it to our interactions with computers. Now even when operating through a robot, the surgeon can feel the knife pushing through the flesh and when the knife touches bone, rather than just see it on the camera monitor. For it to work, takes an awful lot of computer science - modelling the different tissues and simulating their feel back in the instruments. With each improvement the computer science is making surgery safer.