Accept for a second that robot surgeons exist. Who will check they're up to the job – and how?

Let us level with you...


Medical robots should be split into different categories of autonomy, just as driverless cars are, a group of academics proposed Wednesday in Science Robotics.

As should be obvious, surgery requires extensive training. In the US at least, students have to successfully get through university, postgraduate medical school, and years of practical training at a surgical residency program before they can be certified by the American Board of Surgery. They also have to learn to navigate the sensitive nature of patient-doctor relationships.

Robots, on the other hand, can skip school. Machines don't need to accumulate a wealth of biology lessons in order to perform certain surgeries. And unlike their human counterparts they do not get bogged down by stress or fatigue.

Guang-Zhong Yang, professor and director of the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London, believes a classification system is necessary to overcome the "regulatory, ethical and legal barriers" as medical robots get more autonomous.

In other words, these classifications formally define the capabilities of each machine. This makes it a lot easier to work out how much scrutiny each robot requires before it is allowed to work on human flesh in the field: the more complex the design, the more reviews and testing it should go through by regulators.

The six levels are:

  1. No autonomy – device is controlled by user, like prosthetic limbs.
  2. Robot assistance – robot provides some mechanical assistance such as helping patients move and supporting their balance.
  3. Task autonomy – robot can do certain tasks autonomously, such as a mechanical arm sewing stitches.
  4. Conditional autonomy – a system can generate its own tasks but mostly relies on humans to decide, and can perform tasks independently.
  5. High autonomy – robot can make medical decisions but under the supervision of qualified doctors.
  6. Full autonomy – robot can perform the entire surgery as well as a human general surgeon, without supervision.

America's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviews and scrutinizes medical devices before they enter the market, a process that takes ten months on average – or as much as 54 if the agency thinks the product is potentially high risk. These gadgets and tools fit within the proposed levels zero to three.

According to Yang, autonomous robotic surgeons – while still science-fiction – come in at levels four and five, and fall outside the grasp of the FDA. That's because they are no longer just bits of equipment used in theatre: they are decision-making, medicine-practicing computers. In the future, the difference between an AI system and a surgeon will be that a patient's life is held in the balance not by human hands, but by actuators and software code.

The fear is that the FDA will give the green light to a level four or five machine without considering the medical skill of the robot. Think of it this way: the drug agency can approve a new scalpel for use on the basis that whoever ends up using the blade is suitably qualified. The skill of the doctor using the tool is something for practitioner panels to worry about.

Now imagine an intelligent machine with software, sensors, and a scalpel on the end of a robot arm. The system, as a device, can be physically safe and clean, but can the drug watchdog assess the medical skill? Apparently not.

The next step, we're told, will be to get the American Board of Surgery on the case to test the ability of level four and five robots, just as if they were real surgeons, while the FDA checks that the physical design is safe and up to scratch.

"Unlike autonomous cars, the spectrum of tasks, environments, technology, and risk is practically limitless," said Yang and his colleagues.

Crucially, the levels will also help decide the different roles and regulations for different types of robots. For example, a care assistant robot at level four will not need to be scrutinized as heavily as a robot surgeon at level five.

The recent burst of interest in deep learning has spurred a wealth of machine learning algorithms that help agents navigate their environments. As they improve, robots have the potential to be more autonomous and could steal more practical jobs, while medical experts focus more on "diagnosis and decision-making," the authors argue.

"As the autonomous capabilities of medical robotics grow, most of the role of the medical specialists will shift toward diagnosis and decision-making. This shift may mean that dexterity and basic surgical skills may decline as the technologies are introduced, with implications for training and accreditation.

"At the same time, pattern recognition and self-learning algorithms will improve, allowing medical robotics an increasingly larger role in higher levels of autonomy." ®

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • NASA's InSight doomed as Mars dust coats solar panels
    The little lander that couldn't (any longer)

    The Martian InSight lander will no longer be able to function within months as dust continues to pile up on its solar panels, starving it of energy, NASA reported on Tuesday.

    Launched from Earth in 2018, the six-metre-wide machine's mission was sent to study the Red Planet below its surface. InSight is armed with a range of instruments, including a robotic arm, seismometer, and a soil temperature sensor. Astronomers figured the data would help them understand how the rocky cores of planets in the Solar System formed and evolved over time.

    "InSight has transformed our understanding of the interiors of rocky planets and set the stage for future missions," Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in a statement. "We can apply what we've learned about Mars' inner structure to Earth, the Moon, Venus, and even rocky planets in other solar systems."

    Continue reading
  • The ‘substantial contributions’ Intel has promised to boost RISC-V adoption
    With the benefit of maybe revitalizing the x86 giant’s foundry business

    Analysis Here's something that would have seemed outlandish only a few years ago: to help fuel Intel's future growth, the x86 giant has vowed to do what it can to make the open-source RISC-V ISA worthy of widespread adoption.

    In a presentation, an Intel representative shared some details of how the chipmaker plans to contribute to RISC-V as part of its bet that the instruction set architecture will fuel growth for its revitalized contract chip manufacturing business.

    While Intel invested in RISC-V chip designer SiFive in 2018, the semiconductor titan's intentions with RISC-V evolved last year when it revealed that the contract manufacturing business key to its comeback, Intel Foundry Services, would be willing to make chips compatible with x86, Arm, and RISC-V ISAs. The chipmaker then announced in February it joined RISC-V International, the ISA's governing body, and launched a $1 billion innovation fund that will support chip designers, including those making RISC-V components.

    Continue reading
  • FBI warns of North Korean cyberspies posing as foreign IT workers
    Looking for tech talent? Kim Jong-un's friendly freelancers, at your service

    Pay close attention to that resume before offering that work contract.

    The FBI, in a joint advisory with the US government Departments of State and Treasury, has warned that North Korea's cyberspies are posing as non-North-Korean IT workers to bag Western jobs to advance Kim Jong-un's nefarious pursuits.

    In guidance [PDF] issued this week, the Feds warned that these techies often use fake IDs and other documents to pose as non-North-Korean nationals to gain freelance employment in North America, Europe, and east Asia. Additionally, North Korean IT workers may accept foreign contracts and then outsource those projects to non-North-Korean folks.

    Continue reading
  • Google opens the pod doors on Bay View campus
    A futuristic design won't make people want to come back – just ask Apple

    After nearly a decade of planning and five years of construction, Google is cutting the ribbon on its Bay View campus, the first that Google itself designed.

    The Bay View campus in Mountain View – slated to open this week – consists of two office buildings (one of which, Charleston East, is still under construction), 20 acres of open space, a 1,000-person event center and 240 short-term accommodations for Google employees. The search giant said the buildings at Bay View total 1.1 million square feet. For reference, that's less than half the size of Apple's spaceship. 

    The roofs on the two main buildings, which look like pavilions roofed in sails, were designed that way for a purpose: They're a network of 90,000 scale-like solar panels nicknamed "dragonscales" for their layout and shimmer. By scaling the tiles, Google said the design minimises damage from wind, rain and snow, and the sloped pavilion-like roof improves solar capture by adding additional curves in the roof. 

    Continue reading
  • Pentester pops open Tesla Model 3 using low-cost Bluetooth module
    Anything that uses proximity-based BLE is vulnerable, claim researchers

    Tesla Model 3 and Y owners, beware: the passive entry feature on your vehicle could potentially be hoodwinked by a relay attack, leading to the theft of the flash motor.

    Discovered and demonstrated by researchers at NCC Group, the technique involves relaying the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals from a smartphone that has been paired with a Tesla back to the vehicle. Far from simply unlocking the door, this hack lets a miscreant start the car and drive away, too.

    Essentially, what happens is this: the paired smartphone should be physically close by the Tesla to unlock it. NCC's technique involves one gadget near the paired phone, and another gadget near the car. The phone-side gadget relays signals from the phone to the car-side gadget, which forwards them to the vehicle to unlock and start it. This shouldn't normally happen because the phone and car are so far apart. The car has a defense mechanism – based on measuring transmission latency to detect that a paired device is too far away – that ideally prevents relayed signals from working, though this can be defeated by simply cutting the latency of the relay process.

    Continue reading
  • Google assuring open-source code to secure software supply chains
    Java and Python packages are the first on the list

    Google has a plan — and a new product plus a partnership with developer-focused security shop Snyk — that attempts to make it easier for enterprises to secure their open source software dependencies.

    The new service, announced today at the Google Cloud Security Summit, is called Assured Open Source Software. We're told it will initially focus on some Java and Python packages that Google's own developers prioritize in their workflows. 

    These two programming languages have "particularly high-risk profiles," Google Cloud Cloud VP and GM Sunil Potti said in response to The Register's questions. "Remember Log4j?" Yes, quite vividly.

    Continue reading
  • Rocket Lab is taking NASA's CAPSTONE to the Moon
    Mission to lunar orbit is further than any Photon satellite bus has gone before

    Rocket Lab has taken delivery of NASA's CAPSTONE spacecraft at its New Zealand launch pad ahead of a mission to the Moon.

    It's been quite a journey for CAPSTONE [Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment], which was originally supposed to launch from Rocket Lab's US launchpad at Wallops Island in Virginia.

    The pad, Launch Complex 2, has been completed for a while now. However, delays in certifying Rocket Lab's Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) pushed the move to Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand.

    Continue reading
  • Alibaba Cloud adds third datacenter in Germany
    More Euro-presence than any other Chinese company, but still nowhere near Google or AWS

    Alibaba has pulled ahead of its Chinese rivals in Europe with the opening of a third datacenter in Germany.

    The company said the Frankfurt datacenter serves cloud computing products to Europe and "adheres to the highest security standards and the strict compliance regulations set out in the Cloud Computing Compliance Controls Catalog (C5) in Germany."

    The addition brings Alibaba Cloud to a network of 84 availability zones in 27 regions worldwide. The company's first European cloud center arrived in Frankfurt in 2016.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022