Welcome, robot

November 7, 2006

We might as well get friendly with robots. They are cropping up left and right. Today’s robots are a far cry from the mid-20th century models with their clanking gears, a head full of flashing electronics, and occasionally flailing arms. Our modern-day Robbys are designed to fit specific tasks, like Roomba and Scoomba, the Frisbee-like contraptions now circling rooms across the nation, sucking dirt from carpets and scrubbing floors. Ah, technology.

We might as well get friendly with robots. They are cropping up left and right. Today's robots are a far cry from the mid-20th century models with their clanking gears, a head full of flashing electronics, and occasionally flailing arms. Our modern-day Robbys are designed to fit specific tasks, like Roomba and Scoomba, the Frisbee-like contraptions now circling rooms across the nation, sucking dirt from carpets and scrubbing floors. Ah, technology.

It's only a matter of time before such automation is embraced by radiology...and I'm not talking about tidying up, either. Engineers at Duke University are working on a 3D ultrasound scanner that can guide a surgical robot. The scanner might one day enable surgeon-free surgery, according to Stephen Smith, developer of this device and a professor of biomedical engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering.

Smith and graduate student Eric Pua reported early research with the scanner in the November 2006 issue of the journal IEEE Transactions on Ultrasonics. In preliminary tests at Duke, the pair used real-time 3D sonography to guide a robotically controlled surgical instrument to its target.

In the near term, the scanner could be coupled to surgeon-operated robots being used to perform laparoscopic surgeries on the heart and other organs. But the real potential goes well beyond this, said Smith, who speculates that as artificial intelligence improves, the scanner might guide surgical robots without the help of a surgeon.

Now, admittedly, a bit of work remains to be done. The ultrasound scanner has yet to be tested on human patients, for example. But Smith said the technology is ready for clinical trials. A larger question may be whether the medical community ready for it. We need look no further than our everyday lives for the answer.

The mostly behind-the-scenes computer-driven advantages of fly-by-wire avionics that make coast-to-coast flights possible have come into the open with domestic aids like Roomba and Scoomba. With these and other robotic functions popping up in everyday devices, such as the Lexus that parallel parks itself, we are beginning to accept - and pay a lot of money for - 21st century automatons.

The time when computers were perceived as a threat has come and, if not gone, is well on its way out the door. So, with that, I'd like to be among the first to say welcome.