Sunday, March 16, 2014

WWCF: Robot Surgeons or Robot Firefighters?

Which will come first?

Autonomous Robot Surgeons

or

Autonomous Robot Firefighters


Here the critical consideration is autonomous. Robot-like machines today assist in surgery and firefighting. But they are guided by set routines and humans running remote controls. And while there are autonomous elements to these actions, we are not yet to the point where we need to insure Asimov's three rules are being followed. With surgery it will probably be harder to define when that line is crossed. The simple concept would be turning the power switch to "On" and telling the robot, respectively, remove this patient's appendix or go into that building to find any trapped people.

Obviously, we need a high level of comfort that the robot is up to the job. So perhaps the desire for robot autonomy in these cases comes down to figuring out where the benefits from autonomy are greatest relative to the costs. At first blush the benefit would seem highest in the somewhat random and uncontrolled environment of a fire. Likewise the cost would seem to be lowest--if the robot fails to get you out of the towering inferno where no human could have saved you anyway, the opportunity cost is nil, but not so for a robot botching your nose job. But it is not just the cost of robot error that is a factor. The surgery robot can be reused over and over. The firefighting robot may have a much shorter use life. Recent developments are taking this point into consideration.  

Critical still is what I'll term the "devil you know" factor. Surgery may not always be elective, but generally the patient does exert some discretion as to who performs it. And firefighting technology doesn't have to pass through the death-causing gauntlet that is the FDA. The discussion below this post indicates these issues well.

My guess is that we are 10-20 years away from these technologies, which actually seems close I think. I'll give a slight edge to robot firefighters largely driven by the devil you know factor slowing robot surgery down.