Science fiction novels, television series and Hollywood films present butler robots, nearly human in appearance, that are sometimes wonderful assistants for Man. These companions do good deeds, like taking care of the elderly, but are sometimes also very frighteningly real, troubling or even downright scary because they are capable of controlling us. The very word “robot” conjures up visions that range from dreamy to nightmarish…
Which brings to us to an important question: is it better to be dependent on a human being or in control of a machine? Medical robotics is one possible solution for our demographic challenge of an aging population. It is also potentially capable or erasing the word “disability” from our vocabulary. This being said, there are some questions regarding ethics and values that do need to be asked: In light of the evolution of plastic surgery over the last 50 years – such operations were at first “reconstructive” in nature whereas today they are, in many cases, purely for “esthetic” reasons – we need to look at the question of the “augmented” human versus the “repaired” human. Alongside this, though household robots to assist senior citizens can help to improve prevention and enable many elderly people to continue living in their homes, thus reducing public health expenditure, the question of how to finance such systems and guarantee equal access to cutting-edge healthcare technologies also needs to be considered. Finally, like the Factory of the Future, or the Smart Home, or even technological progress in the broad sense, the medical and healthcare sector must probably be revamped in the medium term through a systemic approach and not simply by adding machines, whether robotic or not.
Today, technological progress enables us treat diseases that were often fatal in the last century. Surgical robots aside, there is a whole new breed of robots that can assist people who are disabled or have lost their autonomy, thus offering potential solutions for our demographic challenges. It will be impossible to have a nurse, nurse’s aid or other assistant to help each and every senior citizen in his or her daily life. The intelligence brought to machines – intelligence about its surrounding environment and the analysis of information from this environment – combined with a capacity for autonomous or semi-autonomous action in the physical world, enables us to develop robots that can help our senior citizens both at specialized institutions and at home.
The scope of the “healthcare robotics sector” is very broad, ranging from surgical robots to companion robots for dependent persons, from robots for rehabilitation and transport of medicines at hospitals to robots that assist healthcare professionals or even IoRT (Internet of Robotic Things) devices.
The IFR proposes a segmentation of healthcare robots as follows:
- B-to-B robotic diagnostics systems
- Robotic surgical and treatment systems for healthcare professionals
- B-to-B robotic rehabilitation systems
- Companion robots: personal assistance robots for elderly or dependent individuals
Whether we are talking about surgical operations, technical or psychological assistance for elderly or disabled persons, remote surgery or remote micromanipulation, everyone agrees that healthcare robotics will play an increasingly important role in coming years. The growth in medical robotics since the mid-1980s has been exponential, both in terms of research and innovation and in terms of new products and services. In 2013, medical robotics accounted for 27% of the service robotics market and US $ 1.5 billion in sales.
Medical robotics is clearly one of the success stories of service robotics.
Robots and Disabilities
In France, the first robotics applications in the field of disabilities were developed by Jean Vertut, a CEA researcher who designed robotic systems for missions in hostile environments. In the 1980s, he imagined that his robots could help people whose daily environment proved challenging for them. His meeting with Bernard Lesigne, a CEA physicist who had become tetraplegic following a ski accident, was decisive. Combining their scientific minds, and Vertut’s knowledge of robotics with Lesigne’s experience as a disabled person, together they built the basis for robotics to assist those with motor impairments.
The applications range from robotic wheelchairs to personal rehabilitation robots to assistance in handling and “augmented” man with exoskeletons (see Japan’s Cyberdyne, for example). What’s more, motor handicaps are not the sole focus, as there are advanced-stage research programs on “social” robots for the treatment of autism, assistance robots for persons with Alzheimer’s disease, and household and medical surveillance robotics that enable dependent individuals to continue living in the comfort of their homes.
Deep dive into Medical Robotics with our speakers…
…and our exhibitors: