Like all industries, healthcare faces plenty of criticism. Professionals must deal with rising costs, stressed staff, deluges of new research and an aging population.

Many hospitals and care providers find themselves faced with the challenge of quickly improving their services while maintaining reliability. But how should they do that?

Maybe the answer is robots.

The beauty of robots -- and artificial intelligence -- is their ability to detect patterns among seemingly random data and perform precision tasks quickly and more accurately than a human could.

Advances in science and engineering have opened the doors to applying robots to numerous medical applications.

Here are three ways people are using robots to improve healthcare.

IBM's Watson

Chances are good you've heard the name Watson. But IBM's famous AI is a far cry from the Sherlock Holmes character, although it did win Jeopardy! in 2011. Since then, researchers have applied machine learning to use Watson in applications like voice recognition, analytics and, yes, even healthcare.

Famously, the University of North Carolina School of Medicine used Watson to check 1,000 cancer diagnoses against human experts. Watson advised the same treatment 99 percent of the time. Astoundingly, in 30 percent of the cases, Watson suggested alternative treatment options that the specialists missed.

While doctors will always have their place in healthcare, this experiment proves that AIs are invaluable when it comes to exploring treatment options. The fact is, doctors can't know about every advance in their field, but an AI can fill in the gaps for them.

Da Vinci Surgical System

While IBM's Watson is great for processing data, it hasn't quite reached the point of conducting actual surgery. That's where the Da Vinci Surgical System steps in.

Developed by Intuitive Surgical, this four-armed robot assists surgeons in minimally invasive surgery. Using a console, doctors can preciously manipulate the arms, allowing for a smoother and less potentially scarring surgery.

What's even more impressive is that engineers at the University of California San Diego are working to expand its capabilities even further. At the moment, a surgeon can only control two of the arms at a time, leaving the other two mostly idle. The researchers want to create the software and hardware necessary for all the other arms to move autonomously.

In theory, Da Vinci's independently moving arms will help doctors with routine tasks, freeing up the other surgeons to do the more delicate work. The software must be highly specialized to allow the robot to perform the tasks without hurting the patient or hindering the surgeon. Once perfected, this approach will lead to faster, less invasive operations.

Microbots

Current technological advances now let us construct robots thought impossible a decade ago. Take the microbots developed by the Multi-Scale Robotics Lab at ETH Zurich. Due to their size, it's impossible to operate these bots using traditional motors. Instead, operators manipulate it externally using magnets.

The properties of these robots make them perfect for applications like eye surgery, where conventional methods may be overly invasive. Current methods pose a risk of retinal detachment and infection, even if done by a skilled surgeon.

Using this new method, surgeons can inject the microbot into the eye using a small needle and manipulate it using magnets. This system, dubbed the OctoMag, maximizes the results while minimizing the chance of damaging the eye.

Healthcare today is an entirely different world from just a few decades ago. We can use advanced robotics and AI to perform tasks well beyond human ability. Who knows what the field will look like 50 years from now? Perhaps by then we'll have robots capable of conducting surgery from start to finish.

Published on: Mar 8, 2017
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