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Would You Trust a Robot Surgeon to Operate on You?

Precise and dexterous surgical robots may take over the operating room

11 min read
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Would You Trust a Robot Surgeon to Operate on You?
Illustration: Carl De Torres

Inside the glistening red cave of the patient's abdomen, surgeon Michael Stifelman carefully guides two robotic arms to tie knots in a piece of thread. He manipulates a third arm to drive a suturing needle through the fleshy mass of the patient's kidney, stitching together the hole where a tumor used to be. The final arm holds the endoscope that streams visuals to Stifelman's display screens. Each arm enters the body through a tiny incision about 5 millimeters wide.

To watch this tricky procedure is to marvel at what can be achieved when robot and human work in tandem. Stifelman, who has done several thousand robot-assisted surgeries as director of NYU Langone's Robotic Surgery Center, controls the robotic arms from a console. If he swivels his wrist and pinches his fingers closed, the instruments inside the patient's body perform the same exact motions on a much smaller scale. “The robot is one with me," Stifelman says as his mechanized appendages pull tight another knot.

Yet some roboticists, if they were watching this dexterous performance, would see not a modern marvel but instead wasted potential. Stifelman, after all, is a highly trained expert with valuable skills and judgment—yet he's spending his precious time suturing, just tidying up after the main surgery. If the robot could handle this tedious task on its own, the surgeon would be freed up for more important work.

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The World’s Largest Camera Is Nearly Complete

The future heart of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory will soon make its way to Chile

3 min read
A large black cylinder with a glass lens in front rests on a sturdy white structure in a bright room.

The LSST camera, eventually bound for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, sits on its stand in a Bay Area clean room.

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The world’s largest camera sits within a nondescript industrial building in the hills above San Francisco Bay.

If all goes well, this camera will one day fit into the heart of the future Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. For the last seven years, engineers have been crafting the camera in a clean room at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif. In May 2023, if all goes according to plan, the camera will finally fly to its destination, itself currently under construction in the desert highlands of northern Chile.

Building a camera as complex as this requires a good deal of patience, testing, and careful engineering. The road to that flight has been long, and there’s still some way to go before the end is in sight.

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Lab Revisits the Task of Putting Common Sense in AI

New nonprofit Basis hopes to model human reasoning to inform science and public policy

5 min read
ai hand and human hand touching pointer fingers
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The field of artificial intelligence has embraced deep learning—in which algorithms find patterns in big data sets—after moving on from earlier systems that more explicitly modeled human reasoning. But deep learning has its flaws: AI models often show a lack of common sense, for example. A new nonprofit, Basis, hopes to build software tools that advance the earlier method of modeling human reasoning, and then apply that method toward pressing problems in scientific discovery and public policy.

To date, Basis has received a government grant and a donation of a few million dollars. Advisors include Rui Costa, a neuroscientist who heads the Allen Institute in Seattle, and Anthony Philippakis, the chief data officer of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. In July, over tacos at the International Conference on Machine Intelligence, I spoke with Zenna Tavares, a Basis cofounder, and Sam Witty, a Basis research scientist, about human intelligence, problems with academia, and trash collection. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Technology Innovation Institute

Autonomous systems sit at the intersection of AI, IoT, cloud architectures, and agile software development practices. Various systems are becoming prominent, such as unmanned drones, self-driving cars, automated warehouses, and managing capabilities in smart cities. Little attention has been paid to securing autonomous systems as systems composed of multiple automated components. Various patchwork efforts have focused on individual components.

Cloud services are starting to adopt a Zero Trust approach for securing the chain of trust that might traverse multiple systems. It has become imperative to extend a Zero Trust architecture to systems of autonomous systems to protect not only drones, but also industrial equipment, supply chain automation, and smart cities.