A robotic takeover has long been thought of as the stuff of nightmares, from being a staple of science fiction doomsday scenarios to being warned of by sci-tech leaders such as Elon Musk as an outcome if artificial intelligence (AI) technology continues to grow. In contrast to these bleak predictions on the future of robotics, however, the healthcare sector is making use of AI and robots to save the lives of thousands.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_Elnur'>Elnur / 123RF Stock Photo</a>While many may view the use of AI and robotics as a futuristic prospect, in reality, highly technical machines have been used in assisting healthcare for decades. The stereotypical view of robots is of a machine almost humanoid in appearance, with a face, arms, and legs.This, however, is not necessarily the case.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a robot as, “a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer”. This places a number of computer-driven machines used in a number of industries, including healthcare, on par in terms of their status as a robot with the famous Asimo.

Technology is now advancing rapidly, at a pace that seems unprecedented. Advances in computing will allow the robots of the very near future to make on the spot decisions themselves. AI will give the robots a degree of sentience, rather than just the ability to follow a list of instructions.

This presents huge opportunities for the healthcare system. Machines are capable of precision during surgery that is all but impossible for a human. Concept designs are in place for robots that would enter the field of nursing, allowing for a tireless machine that could provide assistance to the elderly round the clock. Advanced sensors are even allowing robots to detect human emotions.

However, this robotic healthcare revolution may not be without its hurdles. In its initial stages, robotics in healthcare performed computational tasks that were impossible for humans. With advances in AI, the more advanced robots are now reaching a stage where the tasks they would perform could make many jobs within the healthcare sector redundant.


Past to present, robotics behind the scenes


Robotics has been used in a medical setting for decades. Originally, their use was entirely behind the scenes, in a research-based environment. This is not to say robotics has had a minor impact.

The human genome project is a key example of the early integration of complex, computer controlled machines used for the purpose of healthcare. The decade long project which finalised in 2001 involved the automated analysis of the entirety of the human genome.

The project was a breakthrough in genetics and has been built upon by improved and more efficient systems which permit faster analysis of human genomes. This has allowed for mass scale genome wide association studies that have uncovered genes responsible for various kinds of cancers, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The human genome consists of over 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides (the building blocks of human DNA). Analysis of this would not have been possible without the assistance of automated machines.


Robotics, heading to the frontlines


Robotics has steadily made its way from the laboratory to the frontlines of healthcare.

In the past few years, robots have been used to assist with mundane tasks, handling aspects of the logistics of hospitals. The robots were incorporated into the supply chains of the hospital. Using GPS technology fitted into compact, wheeled robots, tasks such as transporting medicines and laundry around the hospital could be made simpler and cheaper.

Logistics is an area in which hospitals tend to spend a considerable amount of money. The automation of this process could allow for large scale savings, the money from which could be redirected to other areas of the hospital. Alongside this, for every robot shipping supplies around the hospital, a set of hands is freed to continue more vital work with the patients.

Panasonic’s “Hospi robot” will perform the aforementioned transport role within the hospital, shipping medicines and goods from ward to ward. It is entirely possible that savings made by hospitals such as the Cleveland Clinic have been made by laying off staff that originally fulfilled the role.

The investment in robot powered supply chains in the hospital has also been shown to be a profitable investment. In the case of the Cleveland Clinic, a large nonprofit academic medical center in the US, the purchase of 81 robotic supply workers showed a return on investment after just a two year period.

More recently, robots have been utilised as part of complex surgeries. The Da Vinci Surgical System, now used worldwide, is an example of this. Produced by the US company Intuitive Surgical, the computer-enhanced surgical machine allows a surgeon to mimic their own hand and wrist movements without any fear of inaccurate movement or shaking.

As of yet these procedures must be guided by a trained surgeon. As technology continues to advance, and more complex sensors and AI added to the robots, simple procedures may be entirely automated.

Robots are progressively integrating into more fields of healthcare. The latest example of this is in the field of nursing. The Robear, a robotic nursing assistant developed by RIKEN-SRK of Japan is an AI driven lifting assistant. It has been designed to help with caring for the elderly, particularly in regards to mobility, in which it is strong enough to lift a fully grown adult, but gentle enough to easily relocate a person from a bed to a wheelchair without pain or discomfort.


Robots to replace people?


Robotics and automation have been shown in the past to cause great upset as many jobs become obsolete. This has occurred in manufacturing, in which it is often more cost effective to produce goods using an AI driven machine than people.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_Elnur'>Elnur / 123RF Stock Photo</a>In healthcare, this has not yet occurred. Most robotic interventions are currently used to help current healthcare workers but less medically-oriented jobs may already be becoming obsolete.

Robots have the advantage of being able to operate 24 hours a day, with no need for breaks, and no qualms about working conditions. This is an attractive prospect for employers, a one off investment in a robotic worker can save them huge amounts in long term salary payments.

It is no surprise that the robotic surgery sector is growing. The robotic surgery market is expected to grow to USD 21,225.0 million by 2023 from USD 5,060.9 million in 2016. This is a rapid expansion which represents increasing interest in the market. Notably, this figure focuses exclusively on robotic surgery, and does not take into account other uses of robots in healthcare.

In their current state, the robots are not capable of performing complex tasks independently. For now, this ensures the safety of most jobs within the healthcare sector.


The potential benefits to the healthcare system


Fear of job losses should not detract from the potential benefits that the integration of AI and robotics could bring to the healthcare sector. If technology continues to advance, the potential for robotic healthcare workers capable of 24 hour independent work could revolutionise health systems.

Diagnostic times could be far faster. Waiting lists for surgery could be substantially reduced through 24 hour operating capacity with as many robotic surgeons as the hospital can invest in.

Currently, robots lack the capacity to rapidly adjust to their current situation, in this capacity they are still far outclassed by human surgeons. Latency issues are also common to robotic assisted surgery, delaying the input from doctor to robotic surgery tool. This is an issue that must be resolved for the technology to progress, as any delay could cause complications during surgery.

The prospect of a robotic doctor replacing a trained physician is unlikely to occur in the near future. The technology is still, realistically, in its infancy. Despite great strides and achievements the sci fi notion of a robot treating illness is as of yet not possible. Research in the area is, however, vital, as the potential for improving the healthcare system by integrating robotics could be revolutionary.

While complete replacement of physicians may be reserved for the distant future, the prospect may come sooner than expected. A Chinese robot has already become a media sensation as the first robot to successfully pass a medical licensing examination. Scoring 96 points higher than the required pass mark, this places the robot technically on par with a medical student.

The robot can automatically capture and analyze patient information and make initial diagnosis. While not yet as efficient or accurate as a human doctor, this puts a robot effectively in the role of a general practitioner (GP), warranting the question of how soon more advanced robots may take over the role entirely.

GPs are expected to recall huge volumes of information regarding any medical condition they may encounter. With so many rare diseases and overlapping symptoms it is common for misdiagnosis to occur. An AI driven robot would make an ideal assistant in this case. A robot would be capable of storing the latest medical knowledge and information for all currently known diseases. A robot – human partnership could therefore increase diagnosis efficiency and accuracy considerably.

Our population is aging, alongside this the vast numbers of people on the planet are relentlessly increasing. Many countries suffer from a lack of trained medical personnel. Robotic healthcare workers may well be the solution to this. The addition of AI driven robots could sufficiently bolster global healthcare efforts. To address many global healthcare concerns robotic healthcare may not just be a possibility, but a necessity.