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Robotics and the healthcare sector

More and more health professionals are turning to robots to carry out complex (surgical) operations. An example of such a robot used to carry out complex cancer operations was featured earlier this year during the Dutch Technology Week. The most commonly used system is the da Vinci surgical robot, introduced more than 15 years ago and providing many benefits, including the ability to work more precisely with reduced blood loss. As explained by Maarten Steinbuch of Eindhoven University, medical robots give surgeons “better hands” as a way of improving the quality with which surgery is performed.

The Eindhoven region in the Netherlands, known as a technology hub, has developed great expertise in high-precision robotics and numerous start-ups are launching surgical robots commercially. MicroSure, for example, specializes in robot-assisted microsurgery – an area for which the da Vinci robots are too clumsy. Another company from the region, Preceyes, focuses on ocular surgery and this year started the world’s first clinical trial of a robot in vitreoretinal eye surgery in collaboration with the Rotterdam Eye Hospital. Robots are also expected to take over more mundane hospital tasks. The TUG autonomous mobile delivery robot is already actively used by many hospitals with regards to nursing, pharmacy and food delivery, reducing costs by up to 80%.

More generally, technology is rapidly unlocking remote areas by providing access to emergency consultations. The fully web-based platform of InTouch Health, for example, “allows users to access virtual care across a broad range of consumer and telehealth devices in any clinical setting”. The impact of this technology on islands such as Vanuatu is already noticeable. The introduction of a high-speed internet connection and a telemedicine system in 2016 meant that physicians and specialists can now be connected to local nurses, while it previously took a 4-6 hour boat ride to get to the main healthcare facility.

Two very practical applications of robotics are social companion robots and exoskeletons. The number of “social” robots has exploded in recent years, with each type performing different functions. While Pepper is used in a reception and customer context, others like Paro have the potential to become a new family member of replace pets. Exoskletons, in turn, cannot only help hospital staff by artificially increasing their muscle power, stamina and weightlifting skills, but patients as well. A mind-controlled exoskeleton suit has already allowed paralyzed patients to have a better quality of life. The system is likely to be improved as more powerful computers and AI will be able to interpret more information from the brain. A danger lurking in the background is the use of this technology to enhance human abilities. Several countries have been investing in the technology to enhance the resilience of their military staff and thereby create “super-soldiers”.

What distinguishes any form of robotics from humans is of course consciousness. However, as experiments with “brain organoids” – organoids being mini-organs created from human tissue – are gathering more and more attention, there is increasing concern among researchers that a form of consciousness may arise in such mini-brains. Guillaume Thierry, a cognitive neuroscientist, notes that he is “happy to conceive that an organoid maintained alive for a long time, with a constant supply of life-essential nutrients, could eventually become sentient and maybe even fully conscious”. Research with animals has shown that such organoids can link up with other organs, thereby allowing to collect sensory information and thus potentially to communicate with the external world.

Although Thierry considers it “much more likely [that consciousness] could arise in an organoid than in a robot”, he stresses that creating mini-brains within an artificial biological environment “should send us all frantically panicking” because they could “develop a form of consciousness that surpasses human capacity”. Although conscious robots are still something of the distant future, now is the time to address the ethical questions raised by biological science. Recent studies such as “Robots in healthcare: a solution or a problem?”, commissioned by the European Parliament earlier this year, provide a useful starting point, with some contributors stressing that “robots and AI present many risks and tensions that will require validation and certification requirements as well as respect for a set of ethical principles”.

Author: Olivier Vonk

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