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Can You Sue a Robot? Part 2 Minimally-Invasive Surgery, Minimally-Invasive Surgery, Robotically-Assisted Microsurgery, and Cybersurgery

Can You Sue a Robot? Part 2 Minimally-Invasive Surgery, Minimally-Invasive Surgery, Robotically-Assisted Microsurgery, and Cybersurgery

In the first part of “Can You Sue a Robot?” we looked at some of the liability issues that could arise if the current enthusiasm toward adoption of “autonomous vehicle technology” (“driverless” cars and trucks) continues to exceed the availability of technology that can reliably convert today’s “dumb” vehicles into a reliable, 100% artificial intelligence-guided vehicle.

In today’s installment, our personal injury lawyer will look at how the art and science of surgery has been transformed by digital technology and the development of surgical instruments so delicate that they cannot be used without computer-assisted guidance. Finally, we will a brief look at the potential of cybersurgery.

Minimally-Invasive Surgery (1970s)

Minimally-invasive surgery describes surgical techniques that make use of special instruments that are inserted into specially-fabricated tubes (“endoscopes”) that are, in turn, inserted into different body cavities or spaces between the body’s organs. Since minimally-invasive surgery involves small incisions and less anesthesia, these techniques can reduce post-surgical recovery times by as much as 50%.

The first successful applications to employ minimally-invasive techniques were in orthopedics (knee, ankle, and elbow surgeries) and abdominal surgeries, such as gallbladder or appendix removal. Today, minimally-invasive surgical technology has progressed to the point that such surgical instruments are now in routine use in many types of brain and spinal surgery.

Minimally-Invasive, Robotically-Assisted Microsurgery (2000s)

A major drawback to the use of minimally-invasive surgical technology is the fact that very small instruments require the surgeon to use very slight changes in finger and / or hand position to make effective use of this technology. In fact, such delicate movements are all but impossible for even the most gifted of surgeons. This problem was not solved until the first decade of our current century.

The first true robotically-assisted microsurgical unit was the da Vinci Surgical System (Sunnyvale, USA), which received initial FDA approval in 2001. Currently, the da Vinci system is approved for use in specific types of urological, gynecological, and abdominal surgeries and is undergoing clinical evaluation in certain cardiac and non-cardiac chest procedures.

In robotically-assisted surgery, the operating surgeon typically sits in front of a bank of computer monitors that provide high-definition images of the body’s interior. The tiny surgical instruments that are used in the surgery itself are manipulated via a “box and joystick” controller similar to those used every day by computer game enthusiasts. These controllers are designed to “smooth out” or suppress the natural tremor of the hands while still allowing precise movement of the surgical instruments.


To many people, the words “cybersurgery” (cyber = “pertaining to computers and/or virtual reality”) and “telesurgery” (tele = “distant”) are one and the same: descriptions of a technology that is the natural successor to the technological revolutions brought about by minimally-invasive and minimally-invasive-robotically-assisted microsurgery.

Cybersurgery is seen by many medical device designers as a natural outgrowth of technology now in use such as a specialist in one city being consulted in “real time” regarding a complex diagnosis or, more commonly, a radiologist who sits at a computer monitor to interprets x-rays taken in a hospital hundreds of miles away.

Although there are many promising developments in technology, cybersurgery is not expected to be in widespread use for at least another decade.

“State of the Art” and “State of the Art Problems”

Although this article has not dealt with specific shortcomings of “state of the art” surgical technology, there is one problem that should be obvious to everyone with more than a passing interest in this field: no one has solved the “operator problem!” By this it is meant that, no matter how sophisticated or delicate the instrumentation may become, there is still a human being in control of the equipment because no one has found a way to make any of these robotic systems completely autonomous and thus independent of the many potential problems that may arise with human control.

Another potential problem area that has yet to be fully explored is that of “cyber-liability,” specifically:

  • In robotically-assisted surgery, who is liable if the instruments in use are not properly calibrated before each surgical procedure, the manufacturer or the operating surgeon?
  • What happens if a properly calibrated system loses its calibration during a procedure?
  • Suppose a surgeon is performing cybersurgery from a location that is in a different city from the patient. If the surgeon commits medical malpractice, where would the case be tried: the city from where the surgeon operated or the city where the patient was injured by the malpractice?
  • Who will certify that robotic surgical systems are safe to use: the manufacturer, a government agency, or some other private organization?

In our next installment of “Can You Sue a Robot?” our personal injury accident lawyer will take a very cautious look at the world of drones, aka “autonomous aviation vehicles,” and how they have already revolutionized warfare, and how they just might revolutionize everything else from disaster relief to Oprah’s Book Club.

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