Google robots for the operating theatre

Surgical robots using artifical intelligence technologies are being developed by Google as part of a deal between the tech giant and the healthcare company Johnson & Johnson.

Google’s life sciences division will work with Johnson & Johnson’s medical device company Ethicon to create a robotics-assisted surgical platform to help doctors in the operating theatre.

The robots will aid surgeons in minimally invasive operations, giving operators greater control and accuracy than is possible by hand, minimising trauma and damage to the patient. Some systems allow surgeons to control devices remotely inside the patient’s body to minimise entry wounds and reduce blood loss and scarring.

James Bond film
Robotic surgical systems such as the Da Vinci device developed by Imperial College in London have been used in general operations since the early 2000s, and even featured in a James Bond film in 2002.

Google believes it can enhance the robotic tools using artificial intelligence technologies including machine vision and image analysis employed in other parts of the business, including Google’s self-driving cars.

The two firms will explore how advanced imaging and sensors could complement surgeons’ abilities, for example by highlighting blood vessels, nerve cells, tumour margins or other important structures that could be hard to discern in tissue by eye or on a screen. Augmented reality systems will be used to overlay important information required during surgery that is typically displayed on multiple monitors stacked around the surgeon, such as pre-operative images, lab test results and details of previous surgeries.

“We look forward to exploring how smart software could help give surgeons the information they need at just the right time during an operation,” said Andy Conrad, head of the life sciences team at Google.

Google will be providing software and expertise for data analysis and vision but will not develop control mechanisms for the robots.

The partnership will help Johnson & Johnson, the world’s largest healthcare product manufacturer, compete in the growing field of robotic medical devices.

Google’s life sciences team is also developing systems that can detect cancer and heart attacks using nanoparticles, and has worked on smart contact lenses that contain sensors capable of monitoring the signs of diabetes – technology that was licensed by the Swiss drug firm Novartis in July 2014 to develop into a practical medical application.

Home helpers
A number of companies have also explored the idea of humanoid robots as future home helpers for elderly people.

The latest experiment from Japan to help with its growing elderly population is bear-shaped. Robear is an experimental nursing-care robot developed by the Riken-SRK Collaboration Centre for Human-Interactive Robot Research and Sumitomo Riko Company.

Unveiled in March, the robot is designed to lift patients out of beds and into wheelchairs, as well as helping those who need assistance to stand up. Robear weighs in at 140kg, and is the successor to heavier robots Riba and Riba-II.

According to Riken, robots like Robear can play an important role in taking the strain off nurses and caregivers, who may be having to lift patients 40 or more times a day, risking lower-back pain in the process.

Robear remains a research project for now, as Riken and its partners continue to improve the robot’s technology, reduce its weight, and ensure that it will be safe – in this case, through legs that extend while lifting a patient, to ensure Robear does not topple over. – © Bloomberg


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