What led you to surgical robotics?
Right now I’m doing an internship at Intuitive
Surgical, the company that makes the da Vinci
surgical robot (
which can already scale motions, magnify
views, and provide 3D vision. Robots can help
a doctor become a Super Surgeon.
How did you begin working with robots?
As an undergrad at Santa Clara University,
I was very fortunate to work with a professor
who had a laboratory for land, sea, and space
robots. It was very hands-on, and underwater
robotics just seemed so cool! We built a low-cost, underwater, remotely controlled vehicle
that operated in a little pool. I got a scuba
license, we went out into the field — that’s
how I started building robots.
It’s quite a leap to go from underwater
robots to the operating room!
My professors have had such an amazing
influence on my life. As a grad student I met
a professor at Hopkins who was doing a lot
of work with surgical robotics. I realized there
were so many problems that needed to be
solved, like how do you give robots a sense of
touch, so a doctor using a surgical robot can
feel hardness or texture. I ended up doing my
master’s thesis on haptic technology.
How do doctors control surgical robots?
That’s what I like to think about — how
humans interact with the machines. There’s
still a lot of work to be done in this area.
Whatever a robot “feels,” we want to convey
that feedback to a doctor in a realistic way.
That can mean a slave robot — a physical
device that gives direct feedback to a doctor
in a physical environment. Or it can be a
virtual environment, where conditions are
simulated on a computer to replicate and
manipulate a physical environment.
In either case, the goal is to provide a
more realistic experience. That might mean
an immersive sense of touch, with attributes
such as weight, pressure, and feel. Or, in a
virtual environment, to provide additional
information like numerical data. I want things
to feel more natural, and to filter out extraneous information.
Is there a proper balance between robotic
technology and human expertise?
I’ve never been interested in robot autonomy;
I’m much more interested in human-machine
interaction. I don’t want robots to be able to
operate on you autonomously, but I do want
computers to understand what’s going on,
so they can assist doctors in ways that even
a human assistant could not — say, with an
extra arm, or by providing enhanced vision.
It’s hard to imagine a doctor performing
surgery without some tactile feedback.
In open-hand surgery, a surgeon can feel the
hardness of tissue, the pressure of surrounding pieces of anatomy, any physical changes
that happen over the course of a procedure,
and so on. Surgical robots work in a very difficult environment. Unlike industrial robots,
which function more or less in free space,
surgical robots operate inside very small
incisions in the body. The constrained space
means there are a lot of physical pressures on
the surgical tools, which makes it very hard to
determine which of those pressures should
be translated into haptic feedback. Plus the
sensors on the robotic arms have to be sterilized in an autoclave, which is very hard on
them. Haptics are viable in research, but in
the real world, it’s much more complicated.
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