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DEC 31st 2013

New Medical Robots: Lifesavers? Or Just Too Creepy?

DEC 31st 2013

Now that medical robots are all over the place– soothing kids before shots, serving as stand-ins for doctors, and even (gasp) wielding surgical knives, maybe it’s time to wonder exactly where this technology is taking us.

How far do these robots dip into the uncanny valley? And where do we draw the line before saying “All this extra precision is great – but, really, I’d just rather have a human doctor operate on me, please”?

Nobody really has a problem with cute robots like Medi, who interfaces with kids and distracts them while a human nurse gives them a vaccine. (In the future,Medi may be able to customize pain management for different ages and genders of children, as well as taking kids’ temperatures and vital signs.)You can’t be too scared of this friendly face – and besides, it’s not like he’s wielding the needle or anything.

kids medi-robot.jpg

Things start to get a little more uncanny with the RP-VITA telepresence robot, which obtained FDA approval earlier this year and is now in use at seven U.S. and Mexican hospitals. The doctor is in – in the monitor, that is.


rp vita.png


Using the wheeled display, which can roll around hospitals all by itself, doctors can see, interact with and diagnose patients from hundreds of miles away. The robot is 5 feet tall, controlled by an iPad, and can find patients automatically using maps downloaded from hospital records. The RP-VITA can make the difference between life and death for people who might otherwise have to wait for a doctor to arrive – especially stroke patients.

Now that’s pretty cool. But also just a tad creepy.

Unquestionably, though, the robot that scares us the most is the da Vinci robotic surgical system – a four-armed creature that doctors can use to operate remotely, from any location.

humanoid da vinci.jpg

The da Vinci system, which has performed over a million operations since the late 1990s, can hold up to 50 instruments at once. The doctor controls it from another console and uses the screen’s 3-D vision to perform precise, complex tasks.

"The benefit is minimally invasive surgery,” says David Rosa, a spokesperson for da Vinci’s creators, Intuitive Surgical. “The patient will feel less pain, need less time to recover, generally (lose) less blood depending on the operation. There's just a raft, a whole host of benefits to the patient.”

That’s great. But all the same…how would you like to be this patient?

da vinci operating.jpg


Several malfunction cases – including a robotic hand that wouldn’t let go of one patient, and an arm that hit another patient in the face – add to the slight feeling of unease that surrounds da Vinci. Clearly, all the bugs aren’t out of the system yet.

And we have a ways to go before we’ll accept that robots can do the job just as well as human doctors can.

Maybe we need a Spielberg-style film about a sad medical robot that just wants to be a real doctor.

Or maybe we don’t.