Google and Johnson & Johnson Conjugate to Create Verb Surgical, Promise Fancy Medical Robots

The two companies partnered to create a robotics-focused surgical startup

3 min read
Google and Johnson & Johnson Conjugate to Create Verb Surgical, Promise Fancy Medical Robots
Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

This week, Google’s Verily (formerly Google Life Sciences) and Ethicon, a Johnson & Johnson medical device company, announced the formation of a startup called Verb. What is Verb? Something about medical robotics, I guess:

“In the coming years, Verb aims to develop a comprehensive surgical solutions platform that will incorporate leading-edge robotic capabilities and best-in-class medical device technology for operating room professionals.”

Sounds good to me! But seriously, that’s not much to go on, so let’s see what we can piece together from the press releases put out from the various companies involved.

The picture at the top of this article almost definitely isn’t Verb’s new surgical robot. It’s Taurus, from SRI Robotics, which (according to a press release) “is licensing next-generation robotics technology to Verb Surgical that we believe will impact both the open and minimally invasive surgery markets and ultimately make the benefits of robotic surgery accessible to more patients around the world.”

While Taurus, originally designed as a bomb-disposal robot, is very much not a surgical robot in its current implementation, it represents several technologies that are very valuable in a surgical context: highly dexterous small manipulators and an advanced teleoperation system with haptic feedback.

The SRI press release also says that “Verb Surgical is developing a new robotic surgery platform that will integrate technologies such as advanced imaging, data analysis, and machine learning to enable greater efficiency and improved outcomes across a wide range of surgical procedures,” which is interesting because of the reference to machine learning. Machine learning can be applied to all sorts of things, of course, but existing commercial surgical robots have mostly steered far away from any kind of learning behaviors or anything that is in the least bit autonomous. If the technology can be made reliable enough, it would be an enormous advance if surgical robots could collaboratively lend their intelligence to human-controlled surgery.

This is true for the same reason that autonomous cars are better drivers than humans are: they have the potential to digest enormous amounts of data (including types that humans can’t directly access) and rapidly make highly informed decisions. We’re not suggesting that purely robotic surgeons are the way to go anytime soon, but as intelligent tools, they could be invaluable.

Meanwhile, here’s what Johnson & Johnson’s press release has to say:

“We believe Verb Surgical has the potential to change the future of surgery, not just robotic surgery,” said Gary Pruden, Worldwide Chairman, Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices. “The team has already made meaningful progress on the robotics platform, which is being developed for application across a host of surgical specialties.” Ethicon, which has deep expertise in minimally invasive surgery and advanced instrumentation, is developing surgical instruments for Verb Surgical’s new robotics-assisted platform. In the coming years, Verb Surgical aims to develop a comprehensive surgical solutions platform that will incorporate leading-edge robotic capabilities and best-in-class medical device technology for operating room professionals.

Along with Taurus, SRI also has been developing more traditional surgical robots, which could also be part of Verb’s new robotics platform. The M7 telerobotic surgical system is designed to do all kinds of crazy things, providing auditory, visual, and tactile sensation, tremor compensation, and even motion compensation for operating in a moving vehicle (!). Over the last decade, the M7 has been demonstrated in an underwater laboratory and in microgravity. The most recent look at the system that I can find is this very brief overview from SRI’s 2015 open house:

Perhaps we’re focusing too much on SRI here, but we know about at least some of their robotics technology, which is more than we know about most of the rest of these guys. And this is all speculation on our part, mind you: we don’t have much information at all on exactly what Verb is going to be doing. There are about a hundred people working for Verb in Mountain View, Calif., doing…stuff. And there are likely to be even more, soon, continuing to do…stuff. Hopefully, at some point not too terribly long from now we’ll find out what all the stuff is, and until then, we’ll just have to keep on speculating.

[ Verb Surgical ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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