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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