Friday, July 9, 2010

Fantastic Future Friday: Robotic Surgery

Earlier this week my Grandfather, who is 93, went to the hospital due to complication due to gallstones. Luckily, thanks to advancements in minimally invasive surgery, the doctor’s were able to remove one of the stones and drain off the fluids causing the problem. At this point it is looking like he should be able to heal on his own and hopefully doesn’t have to go in for another surgery.

Thirty years ago this would not have been possible and the choices would be full surgery, which is very risky on someone his age, or a course of treatments to suppress the symptoms and hope his body recovers on its own.

That got me thinking about where surgery will be in thirty years.

The latest trend in surgery is Robotic Surgery. As it is still in its infancy stage it is great for some operations and bad for others, it takes a very skilled surgeon to operate the robots and at the moment there are fewer fully trained surgeons than machines. Just like in the 1980s there weren’t enough fully trained surgeons to do the number of minimally invasive operations demanded. As the number of surgeons trained to do minimally invasive operations grew, it became just one more option and surgeons could determine when it was best and when it wasn’t.

The same will happen in the Robotic Surgery field and the robots will become more specialized. Advances in technology will make the robots even more useful.

The advantage that minimally invasive and robotic surgical techniques have over traditional surgery is they cut through less good tissue to get to the problem. So naturally the smaller the instrument used to cut into the body the better.


As anyone who has read this blog knows I am a huge fan of carbon nanotubes, atoms of carbon forced together to make long tubes of single molecules. These have the strength to be used to control the robots as they make their way through the body and they can also transmit optical and electrical impulses to replace wires. Using the nanotubes themselves to build smaller operating robots will also make for smaller opening in the body to do the surgery.

As the robots get smaller they will be able to reach more places in the body to operate on with less damage to healthy tissue.


Biochips take advantage of the complex chemical reactions that happen in living cells and combine them with research done in the semi-conductor field to make tiny but powerful sensors. Having Biochips on the end of a surgical robot would allow the surgeon not only to see what the problem is, but also allow them to do all the testing that a it normally takes an entire hospital lab to perform. They would be able to do this on the fly and perform tests right down to the cellular level to see which cells to remove and which to leave alone.

DNA computer chips

IBM has recently made computer chips that use DNA as scaffolding to grow on. This discovery makes it possible to create computer chips less than a quarter of the size they are now.

Having smaller computers means the robots can handle more of the functioning of moving through the body without having to transmit data and receive instructions from the central computer. Things like compensating for Brownian movement and other factors, letting the surgeon concentrate on the operation itself.

As all these technologies come together in the next few decades surgeries that currently risky and dangerous will be able to be done on an out patient basis. That will lead to a Fantastic Future.

By Darrell B. Nelson author of Invasive Thoughts

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