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Apr 3, 2012
Medical robots: From mechanized lampreys to android nurses
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From the beginning of science fiction, robots have often been a central plot point, striving to destroy us. But, seeing how we treated these machines as both slaves and trash, can we really blame them? Then again, there are just as many stories, where the robots are actually striving to save us. “Danger, Will Robinson!,” anyone?

But, how far are we really from having an army of robots that would actually be willing to save our lives? Well, as long as we don’t give robots artificial intelligence and then start treating them like crap, really not very long. Advances in robotics have taken leaps and bounds in recent years, including in the medical community.

We discussed some of these innovations in the article, Nanotechnology innovations: Steam engines, corkscrew robots and micro-surgeries late last year; however, the cool thing about robotics, is that it is a field of research that never seems to stall. Nearly as fast as the imagination can allow, robotics seems to push forward from small nanotechnology to large geriatric robonannies.

Three of the seven Raven II robots, each with a pair of tiny hands that are controlled by a surgeon. Credit: University of WashingtonOne problem with robotics in its present day, is that there is no real standardized platform, by which researchers could adapt, tweak, and share their new innovations with fellow scientists. That is until now. In a University of Washington basement, seven identical surgical robots, were developed by Blake Hannaford, Jacob Rosen, and a skilled robotics team. These robots are now being shipped to labs all over the country, and will be further developed with a common, open-source platform. As researchers begin to adapt, tweak and alter these robots for their own use, they can easily share their innovations with fellow scientists, ultimately advancing the field of robotic surgery at a faster rate.

The Cyperplasm robot is based on a lamprey, a jawless fish. Credit: Great Lakes Fishery CommissionAnother hot field of robotics research is biomimicry, creating robots that are inspired by nature. A prototype, Cyberplasm is a small 'robotic lamprey' that may, if the researchers have their way, one day save your life. With advanced microelectronics, the idea is to develop a rudimentary electronic nervous and muscular system that will allow the robot to propel its way through the body, feasting on glucose as an energy source, while detecting any signs of damaged or diseased tissue. Who knows, with the development of new artificial skin, which is supposed to allow robots to “feel,” maybe Cyberplasm could be developed into an incredible medical tool.

Pushing aside the creepy vibes I get from the thought of having a robotic parasite swimming through me, this could potentially be an incredible innovation. This robot could be used to show a level of diagnosis that was never possible before and this is awesome; however, while I understand (in theory) the desire to use glucose as an energy source, this could be a problem. By using a robot that burns the same fuel (glucose) as our own bodies, we are automatically introducing an antagonistic relationship.  How will we control for how much glucose this robot will use? Will the robot extract glucose from the blood? Would it also attack cells? How long will this robot remain in the body? The introduction of novel robotic nanotechnology is exciting, but perhaps we should make sure we fully understand the consequences of altering our underlying biochemistry before we start trying.  

The RIBA-II robot can lift immobilized patients.Rather than dealing with diagnosis, drug delivery, or surgery, RIBA-II is new type of healthcare robot that instead handles the patient care side of things. Moving patients is a strenuous task of home care nurses and family members, especially if this needs to be repeated multiple times. With innovative rubber sensors in the arms and torso of the RIBA-II, a robot developed by Japanese researchers at RIKEN and Tokai Rubber Industries (TRI), a patient that is ≤ 80 kg (~176 pounds) can be safely transferred from a bed to a wheelchair and back again. This invention could be a lifesaver.  It could provide a respite for care-givers, while offering a sense of independence to patients that must rely on others to care for them. Before you know it, these robots could be at nursing homes worldwide.

Robots are awesome. Don't treat them like useless slaves and we might actually have a future without a terrible 'war with the machines.'

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