Why robot surgeons will have human overlords

Image: Robot on 'Heartbeat'
A heart patient is prepped for a surgical procedure on an episode of NBC’s “Heartbeat” that features the University of Washington’s Raven robotic technology. (Credit: NBC / Universal Television)

A surgeon peers into a high-definition monitor, studies the ragged edge of a heart valve, and twiddles her fingers in a gizmo-laden glove. Meanwhile, miles away, a robot that looks like a cross between a loom and a torture device reproduces her every delicate move with a pair of tiny pincers, suturing up the damaged heart.

This isn’t reality. This is last week’s episode of NBC’s “Heartbeat” medical drama, featuring a version of the University of Washington’s Raven robo-surgeon that’s been souped up just for show.

The real-life world of robot-assisted surgery may not be as edgy as Hollywood makes it out to be. But it’s here, it’s profitable, and it could soon get a lot edgier.

The market leader is Intuitive Surgical, the maker of da Vinci Surgical Systems. Last week, the Silicon Valley company reported a nearly 17 percent rise in da Vinci procedures worldwide over the past year, and a 41 percent rise in quarterly profit. That boom came even though a single robot costs $2 million – a price tag that’s generated controversy in the health-care community.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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