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.