Although most robots are deployed in the automotive sector, their application within medicine and healthcare is likely to catch up fast.
Worldwide sales of medical robots increased in 2015 by 7% to 1,324 units year on year, with the most important applications being assisted surgery and therapy. Similarly, the total value of sales of medical robots in 2015 increased to $1,463m, 32% of the total sales value of the professional service robots, according to the International Federation of Robots (IFR).
According to Axa fund manager Tom Riley, robots were responsible for 750,000 soft-tissue procedures such as hernia repair in 2016. There is likely to be greater adoption going forward as machine precision increases. He also argues the commercial model for robot-assisted surgery is attractive.
“A robot will cost $1.5m, but it requires replaceable surgical tools such as razors – they cost $1,500 every time and suppliers of these products make regular income here as well as from the robots themselves.”
Big data in cancer care
The next technology trend is social or companion robotics. These are social robots that use artificial intelligence to understand people and respond appropriately. Paro, the therapeutic seal, is a simple example that has been around for many years.
Carnegie Mellon University has developed the Socially Aware Robot Assistant or SARA, which interacts with people on a personal level and improves task performance by relying on information about the human user and their needs. It performs tasks while ensuring it interacts with its human in a comfortable and engaging style designed to foster increased closeness.
Healthcare specialist Dexcom has developed a mobile continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) solution that sits under the skin of people with diabetes and monitors blood sugar every 10 minutes. Alerts are sent to a smart phone and imbalances in blood sugar are picked up before they cause any problems for the patient.
Earlier this year Dexcam was approved by the US government’s medication programme and is being deployed as part of Medicare. Another augmentation product is Google’s contact lens, which senses body temperature and glucose levels to help with diabetes management. The more futuristic US-based Defense Advanced Research Project Agency has a research program to develop implantable devices to help restore memory.
DNA is the key to life, and the most significant application of artificial intelligence and machine learning is likely to be its work with DNA in the health sector.
Although scientists have sequenced the human genome, what the sequence means is still largely a mystery. If we are to understand what influences life and biology, we must first understand the language that is DNA.
Machine learning algorithms of the sort operated by Google’s Deep Mind and IBM’s Watson can help with this. They can digest immense amounts of data (including patient records, clinical notes, diagnostic images and treatment plans) and read patterns in them (by comparing them with other patient records) in a short space of time.