We humans have been afraid of robots since Czechoslovakian playwright Karel Čapek first used the word in 1920. Čapek’s science fiction play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), in which “roboti”, synthetic people created to serve their human masters, wipe out most of the human race, did not represent the most auspicious start for the machines.
“None of humanity’s creations inspires such a confusing mix of awe, admiration, and fear,” writes Wired reporter Matt Simon. “We want robots to make our lives easier and safer, yet we can’t quite bring ourselves to trust them. We’re crafting them in our own image, yet we are terrified they’ll supplant us.”
Perhaps Čapek’s vision was prescient. We are still afraid. First robots will take our jobs and then they will destroy us and become rulers of the universe. It’s only a matter of time, right? Perhaps, but in the real world scientists have been developing robots over the last 60 years or so with the aim of assisting rather than destroying us – so it’s no surprise that some of the most exciting advances in robotics are taking place in the realm of healthcare.
The first surgical robot, the Arthrobot, designed to assist in orthopaedic surgery, was developed in Canada in the mid-1980s by researchers at the University of British Colombia under the direction of Dr James McEwan, Director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Vancouver General Hospital.
In 1998, Dr Friedrich-Wilhelm Mohr used the daVinci, a robotic surgical system produced by Californian company Intuitive, to perform the first robot-assisted heart bypass at the Leipzig Heart Centre in Germany. It was approved for use in the US in 2000 and the UK in 2001 and for the past two decades it has dominated the field of robotic surgery, with more than 4,500 now in use worldwide.
Rivals are appearing on a regular basis. In the UK, for example, where daVinci is currently in use in more than 70 hospitals, this year will see the introduction of Versius, developed by Cambridge Medical Robotics (CMR).
Things could become very interesting in the next few years. In 2015, Google entered the surgical robotics business, partnering with Johnson & Johnson to form Verb Surgical. In typical Silicon Valley style, the company is promising “Surgery 4.0”, a platform that will combine robotics, visualization, advanced instrumentation, data analytics and connectivity to “democratise surgery”. Verb Surgical demonstrated its first digital surgery prototype in 2017 and expects to bring its first surgical robot to market in 2020.
Dr Shafi Ahmed, a surgeon, cancer specialist and co-founder of Medical Realities, a platform pioneering the use of virtual reality in surgical training, is certain AI and robots will eventually replace human surgeons like him. “I call it ‘surgical singularity’. And at some point it’s definitely going to happen: it’s just a question of when,” he told Wired in 2016.
Surgery is not the only area of healthcare in which robots are being used. Last year, researchers from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ (CAS) National Center for Nanoscience and Technology (NCNST) injected nanobots into mice to cut off the blood supply to cancerous tumours. The treatment successfully reduced the size of the tumours and stopped them spreading.
Toyota has developed a robotic leg brace, the Welwalk WW-1000, to help patients with partial paralysis on one side of their body to walk again.
Mabu, from Catalia Health, marketed as a “portable healthcare companion”, is a desktop robot that talks to patients in their homes about their health, collecting data communicating it to their care team. Its primary purpose, according to its creator, CEO of Catalia Health Dr Cory Kidd, is to make sure patients follow the treatment plans recommended by their doctors.
Zora, from ZoraBots, marketed as a “personal caregiver”, is a playful robot designed to provide companionship and motivation for patients, particularly older patients in care homes. “We need to help with loneliness,” Tommy Deblieck, the co-Chief Executive of ZoraBots told The New York Times.
In the field of mental health Woebot, a chatbot, accessible via an iOS app, uses the principles of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) to help users cope with feelings of anxiety or depression. Developed by a team of psychologists, it aims “to make mental health radically accessible to everyone”.
Last year, Professor Ara Darzi, Lord Darzi of Denham, a leading British surgeon, Paul Hamlyn Chair of Surgery at Imperial College London and a pioneer in the field of robot-assisted surgery produced a report on the NHS for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) that called for a the government to embrace “automation” and proposed the use of “Bedside robots” to assist patients at mealtimes and with rehabilitation and “care-bots” to improve social care.
“The NHS turns 70 this year but we must turn our sights to the future. We should not accept an analogue NHS in a digital decade,” declared Darzi’s report.
There is nothing to fear. The robots will soon be taking care of us all.
This article is designed to throw an everyday lens on some of the issues being discussed and debated by investors across the world; it is not research, so please do not interpret it as a recommendation for your personal investments. If something has piqued your interest and you would like to find out more or discuss what investments might be suitable for you, please contact one of our Investment Managers on 020 7337 0777.