Not So Far Far Away From Star Wars Medical Droids

Posted on December 18, 2015 I Written By

Colin Hung is the co-founder of the #hcldr (healthcare leadership) tweetchat one of the most popular and active healthcare social media communities on Twitter. Colin speaks, tweets and blogs regularly about healthcare, technology, marketing and leadership. He is currently an independent marketing consultant working with leading healthIT companies. Colin is a member of #TheWalkingGallery. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.

Friday December 18th is the day that Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theatres. It carries with it the dreams of generations of fans. From old timers like me (who remember watching Star Wars: A New Hope in a converted opera house in 1977) to the new generation who grew up watching the prequels and the Clone Wars – everyone is looking forward to this new film.

As a fan, I thought it would be remiss of me if I didn’t write a blog using Star Wars as the theme this week.

One of the things that always struck me about Star Wars was the lack of doctors in the movies. Unlike the Star Trek universe where we had the lovable character of Dr. Leonard McCoy (Bones), you never really see a physician in Star Wars. Instead all the healing is done by droids.

In Empire Strikes Back, we are introduced to a medical droid that heals Luke Skywalker after his encounter with the abominable snowman-like Wampa on the frozen planet of Hoth. At the end of the movie we see other droids caring for Luke after he loses his hand after battling Darth Vader.

Back in the 80s when Empire Strikes Back was released these medical droids were pure science fiction. In 2015 medical robots are a reality and some are surprisingly similar to the ones depicted in the movie. Take for example the da Vinci Surgical Robot by Intuitive Surgical (on the left) which looks like a precursor version to the FX series of medical droids from Star Wars (on the right).

Da Vinci Xi Robot and Star Wars FX Medical Droid

I’ve never seen the da Vinci surgical robot, but the write-ups have been incredible. This robot allows surgeons to perform minimally invasive surgeries using the four finely controlled arms. The surgeon controls everything through a console. It is not hard to imagine that one day soon the surgeon performing the surgery may not be in the same hospital or even the same country as the robot itself – the ultimate in telemedicine!

Surgical robots are a hot area of healthcare innovation. Just last week Johnson & Johnson and Verily Life Sciences (formerly Google Life Sciences) got together to create Verb Surgical. According to the press release, “in the coming years, Verb Surgical aims to develop a comprehensive surgical solutions platform that will incorporate leading-edge robotic capabilities and best-in-class medical device technology for operating room professionals”.

As more companies enter this space, the faster these robots will evolve.

However, having articulating surgical robots only gets us part-way to a fully functional Start Wars medical droid. We have the body, but now we need the brains. That’s where IBM’s Watson comes in.

Watson is arguably the closest thing we currently have to artificial intelligence. IBM’s brainchild is able to analyze data and draw patterns/conclusions faster than any computer system that has ever existed. It is already capable of crunching through millions medical records and use that knowledge to help with cancer treatment. In pilots with several institutions, Watson is already assisting with diagnosis and treatment of disease.

It’s not hard to imagine that one day a Watson-like system will be combined with a surgical robot. Add in a little bit of advanced machine vision plus a few antimicrobial nanomaterials and all of a sudden you have the basics of a Star Wars medical droid.

The optimist in me believes it will happen in my lifetime. I only wish lightsabers and x-wing fighters weren’t so far far away.

Image Credit

Da Vinci Xi Robot – engadget http://www.engadget.com/2014/04/01/da-vinci-xi-surgical-robot/

FX medial droid – starwars.wikia.com http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/FX-series_medical_assistant_droid