Eight weeks ago I walked into a San Diego, CA hospital to undergo elective surgery to repair two leaky valves in my otherwise healthy heart. My leaky heart valves were discovered following a 2012 ski trip, where the high altitude alerted me to breathing challenges that couldn’t be shrugged off as “just being out of shape.” Searching the web for causes and solutions, I discovered the relatively new medical practice of robot-augmented cardiac valve surgery using a machine named Da Vinci, after Leonardo Da Vinci’s 1495 invention of the first robot.
Da Vinci is a two-million dollar machine designed to facilitate complex surgery with minimal invasion. Since being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2000, Da Vinci robots have augmented over one-million surgery procedures. When used for cardiac valve repair, Da Vinci’s four pencil thin arms are placed into the heart through the rib cage, above a deflated lung, without opening the sternum (rib cage). Using an internal high definition camera to feed video over to displays at the control station, the surgeon precisely guides Da Vinci’s arms and tiny tool heads within the space of a heart chamber. Still required is the heart-lung machine to feed oxygenated blood to the body, while the heart is stopped during the surgery.
The advantage of minimally invasive Da Vinci surgery is shorter recovery time, less blood loss (in my case no transfusions), and less ancillary complications. Former Navy thoracic surgeon, James Hemp, and his Da Vinci team repaired my mitral valve, and as a surprise benefit closed three unknown birth defect holes in the wall between the left and right chambers of my heart. A doppler ultrasound instrument, placed close to my heart during the procedure, helped locate the holes, verified that the mitral valve was repaired, and verified that the tricuspid valve did not need repair.
As tribute to Dr. Hemp and his Da Vinci team, four days after entering the hospital I literally walked out to resume normal life with a much improved heart. After returning home, despite sore incisions and the need for extra rest, I was immediately able to do almost everything I normally do including work and home projects. In effect, the only real down-time I experienced was the three days I spent recovering in the hospital. Two weeks later, during my first follow-up visit, Dr. Hemp pronounced me fully released to do any normal activity with no prescribed medications. In short, I am an active participant in a modern medical miracle!
Were it not for the emerging symbiotic relationship between man and our modern machines, such a miracle would not have been possible. And this is just the beginning of our human future. Just as smart phones are rapidly becoming “must have” parts of our productive work/private life experiences, many other symbiotic man-machine relationships are emerging. Consider for example:
- Seventy percent of U.S. households now have broadband
- U.S. smartphone usage has climbed to 61% of mobile subscribers
- Nissan Motor Corp. …ready to sell cars capable of fully autonomous driving by 2020
- Anthropomorphic Robotic Tools
Each of these examples represent man-machine relationships that are part of our collective future. Particularly promising will be the anthropomorphic robotic devices capable of augmenting normal human functions for lost limbs or paralysis, and for increasing our human capacity to accomplish superhuman feats. Just as we have learned from our smart phones, upside advantages are always accompanied by unintended negative consequences such as texting while driving.
The technologies to support self driving cars are currently making rapid progress. Every major auto manufacturer, facilitated by national government organizations including the U.S. Department of Transportation, are working on standards, technology, and the policies needed to enable self-driving vehicles. Google self-driving research cars have autonomously driven over 300,000 miles on U.S. streets and highways. Google is now sufficiently confident in their cars to allow car-team employees to ride the cars on their daily commute.
As we continue down these paths no one will be able to fully predict the life changing advantages and associated unintended consequences that await. What we do know is that the evolution of man plus machine is happening much faster than the evolution of either man or machine. I personally am sincerely thankful that Dr. Hemp and his Da Vinci team, have given me a stronger heart to help me explore this exciting future.
Next stop, car robots that deliver us wherever we want, whenever we desire…