Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci series of surgical robots have been conducting FDA-approved minimally invasive surgery on humans for well over a decade now, and the company is continually trying to make its robots better at performing operations with the absolute minimum of cuttingyouopenness. Last week, Intuitive released a fancy new version of the da Vinci robot, the Xi, which it says has more capabilities than previous models and is optimized for complex procedures.
A quick reminder if you're not familiar with the da Vinci: It's not an automated surgical system. Rather, it's remote controlled by a human surgeon. The word "remote" might be a bit misleading, though: while the system is capable of being operated from just about anywhere, it's most common to have the surgeon sitting right next to it, in the operating room with the patient. The benefit of the da Vinci system isn't really the potential for remote access; instead, it's that the surgeon can use tiny robotic tools that mean a much smaller incision, along with visual enhancements like infrared imaging that provide valuable information than their eyes might not.
That last bit in there is a good example of one of the benefits of using a robot for surgery: you can add a bit of augmented reality into the mix to make the job of the surgeon significantly easier by providing information overlaid on the important bits of the patient directly, instead of having to glance back and forth at images while you try not to poke the wrong squishy thing.
Still, we should point out that the benefits of robotic assisted surgeries are still open to debate: they are minimally invasive, but the systems are expensive, making the surgeries more expensive, and the overall benefit to the patient is not always certain.
However, a UCLA study from February of this year did find that "prostate cancer patients who undergo robotic-assisted prostate surgery have fewer instances of cancer cells at the edge of their surgical specimen and less need for additional cancer treatments like hormone or radiation therapy than patients who have traditional 'open' surgery."
This is the sort of study that we need more of, especially as surgical robots get more advanced: the technology that da Vinci systems represent is very impressive, but it's important to know that it's definitely worth using before our healthcare system invests in it.