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The Past, Present and Future of Robotic Surgery

Still Waters

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In 2004, the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) dangled a $1 million prize for any group that could design an autonomous car that could drive itself through 142 miles of rough terrain from Barstow, California, to Primm, Nevada. Thirteen years later, the Department of Defense announced another award — not for a robot car this time, but for autonomous, robotic doctors.

Despite many challenges, that is changing. Today, five years after that award announcement, engineers are taking steps toward building independent machines that not only can cut or suture, but also plan those cuts, improvise and adapt. Researchers are improving the machines’ ability to navigate the complexities of the human body and coordinate with human doctors. But the truly autonomous robotic surgeon that the military may envision — just like truly driverless cars — may still be a long way off. And their biggest challenge may not be technological, but convincing people it’s OK to use them.


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