Team leader Peter Kim explains how robot surgeons could be the new driverless cars

The STAR team

If STAR – the team behind Autonomous Soft Tissue Robotic Surgery for Improved Safety, Access and Outcome – win this year’s AI and Robotics for Good Award, the benefits could reach the millions who undergo the 232 million surgeries performed each year globally.

“The message is not that we want to replace surgeons, but imagine having a smart tool,” says Peter Kim, team leader of STAR. “We used to drive manual cars and now everybody pretty much drives an automatic. Then there’ll be autonomous cars. It is just progress.”

Kim and his team have developed a robot they hope can take on a lot of the tasks in an operation, from making the incision to dealing with the problem and then closing again – all supervised by a surgeon. It could eventually conduct autonomous surgery.

The robot enhances a surgeon’s skills and can be useful for highly repetitive tasks that need speed and precision. While robots are already used in some operations, STAR’s innovation in soft tissue surgery is that the robot can distinguish variations in shades of pink – for example, between where it wants to operate and the surrounding tissue. Getting a robot involved will decrease the number of human-induced errors; significant complications during surgery can increase the risk of death ten-fold, says Kim.

“Even though technology has evolved, [most operations] still depend on each surgeon’s experience, training and skills,” he explains. “STAR will make the best surgical techniques and technologies available for all surgeons, all around the world, so that the best and safest outcomes are accessible to all patients.” STAR’s aim is to provide intelligent help, too; the technology could evolve to make suggestions to the surgeon, says Kim.

The team have tested the robot on a model of a large animal model. Preclinical tests show that out of 100 operations, STAR is “better 95 times out of 100” says Kim. Winning the competition would allow STAR to woo potential investors and incorporate two new technologies: imaging technology and soft robotics – “So it will perform like the human hand, not just a rigid metal tool”.

“We are competing to win,” effuses Kim. “I think this will make current surgical tools smarter and better.”