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Superhuman Surgery: Robotic Assistance for Doctors

Though surgeons typically brim with confidence and are often seen as some of the most competent physicians around, it only takes a tiny involuntary movement to transform a successful operation into a malpractice lawsuit. When it comes to fine-scale surgery such as operating inside the human eye or repairing microscopic nerve fibers, even the most skilled and steady-handed surgeons suffer minute, almost imperceptible hand tremors which can lead to complications for the patient. To overcome these issues, some scientists have been working on ways to use technology to improve – and ideally perfect – surgeons’ movements while operating.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have found a way to precisely measure and compensate for the relative motions of a surgical instrument in relation to its target. By combining an optical imaging and graphing technique (with a resolution of approximately 10 microns) with computer-controlled piezoelectric motors (that can react hundreds of times a second), the experimenters were able to actively stabilize the tip of a surgical tool. In simpler terms, the team has utilized advanced optical sensors to create a new “smart” surgical tool that can compensate for unwanted movements by either the surgeon or the patient, keeping scalpels, needles and tweezers exactly where they need to be, avoiding unnecessary after-effects of surgery.

Thanks to the small size and flexibility of the optic-fiber cable in the device, which they’ve named SMART (Smart Micromanipulation Aided Robotic-surgical Tool), doctors will be able to integrate it with their own surgical tools, giving themselves superhuman levels of precision. Researchers have already performed some tests on live tissue and expect to take their instrument from the laboratory to the operating suite in the next few years.

Will the future have completely computerized surgical robots or just humans with enhanced capabilities? Either way, anything that helps ease the burden for one of the most complex and fatiguing jobs can only be a good thing.

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