The Rise Of The Robots: Medical Predictions & Ethics

Photo credit: Peyri Herrera

The launch of the Roomba hoover in 2002 – capable of navigating its environment, avoiding obstacles and following paths to carry out its cleaning – has cleared the path for similar robotics to filter down into our everyday lives. Google has notoriously been snapping up robotics companies such as Boston Dynamics, with its walking/climbing/racing creations, as well as pioneering self-driving cars, while research lab Willow Garage unveiled a towel-folding robot back in 2010 (more on these in later blogs in the Robotics series).

And why shouldn’t robots be proving popular? While past creations, like the bulky machines of car manufacturing plants, were programmed for repetitive albeit complex tasks, technology is growing ever-smarter – replacing in-built commands for the machines’ own trial-and-error experimentation and exploration. It’s little wonder that, for robots, there’s boundless commercial opportunity – including within industry, healthcare, transport, and even the home – and so we set out to uncover how robots cope in each of these spheres.

Today, we look at medicine, predicting what may evolve from robots that are already in place, and what shortcomings or ethical quandaries might be raised by these advancements.

Self-Controlling Medication

The idea behind this is simple: swallow a tablet that’s packed full of medicine, and have it release doses when needed. That’s the theory of MicroCHIPS, a revolutionary contraceptive ‘pill’ the size of a postage stamp that, once implanted, controls the amount of hormone required to prevent pregnancy – or let it happen naturally, depending on what the woman’s switched it to.

It sounds like the perfect product, and is guaranteed to save embarrassing trips to the Doctors’ surgery – but what about the risks? It might seem a step-up from the lolly-stick-sized contraceptive implant of the likes of Implanon, but there’s no guarantee that a digitised version of it wouldn’t malfunction and administer too much of the drug(s), or even be hacked – especially if, as we’ve envisaged, the technology was used for other medication needs. With a proposed release date for MicroCHIPS of 2018, there’s concerns over the safety of such inventions – and not without cause.

Robotic Surgery

While the da Vinci Surgical System – the surgeon-operated, robotic-supported tool designed for tricky operations – has been in use for 15 years, the robot has never acted autonomously; so it follows that this naturally the next big step for the machine.
Currently, 3D-HD and specialist software give close-ups of the operating area, while precise instruments and wrist-like actions help make controlled movements that mimic the dexterity of the human hand.

It’s already seen notable success in surgeries of the heart and head, among others, and has performed over a million operations so far. And, as the surgery is often less-invasive, incisions are usually smaller than traditional surgery, which can mean a faster recovery time with less scarring and need for pain medicines, and less complications during procedures.

But it’s not all positive: its software is difficult for medical professionals to modify, and both the machine and its maintenance are costly. It’s also involved in several lawsuits for deaths during operations – so in making these advancements, the question of accountability for a robot is crucial.

The Robot Nurse

Mobiserv’s Charly is a robot that both keeps time and uses monitoring sensors around the home to react to a patient’s requirements – whether time-specific needs, like taking medication (based on presets), or real-time needs, such as whether a patient needs to eat or drink (based on observation). It also suggests games and exercises to stimulate the patient, and can run video calling through its interface to encourage socialising. Plus, it’s smart enough to recognise certain ‘dangers’, such as open doors or lights left on.

The biggest concern with the robot is that while, for the moment, it doesn’t necessarily replace human intervention – family members away from the patient are never too far with the connecting iPad, which can be used to issue Charly instructions and set notifications – it, like da Vinci, will become autonomous, which means it could make damaging decisions that play with life. And, where human care and interaction is replaced or replicated with a machine – as in the case of Paro – it’s not guaranteed to be a healthy solution.

In truth, the general role of humans alongside robots is uncertain. While it’s hoped that man may control machine, or at the very least live in partnership with it, we may become so far removed from some professions that we’re defunct, leaving robots to govern not only themselves, but each other – although it’s arguable that this could leave us to pursue other, better, safer ways of working with improved pay. And robots, like humans, should be able to act on a combination of logic and emotion in their decision-making processes – but there’s no way of knowing how, exactly, they’ll develop.