Can Computers Perform Plastic Surgery?

The times are changing! So, would you let a robot perform plastic surgery on you? That might not be possible in the world we’re living in today—but I really don’t think it’s all that far off. It makes me wonder just how comfortable many plastic surgery patients might be about that kind of prospect, even if it ends up being quite safe.

Let’s say you want to get the very best plastic surgery results possible: would you let a robot perform plastic surgery on you? I know that sounds kind of like a silly question—maybe something from a science fiction movie. But the fact of the matter is that computer-assisted (or even computer-operated) surgery is quickly becoming a reality.

Could a Robot or Computer Perform Plastic Surgery?

That a computer could render life-saving procedures is an amazing thing (we live in an age of miracles). But there’s another problem associated with plastic and cosmetic surgery that isn’t shared by other types of emergency or life-saving surgery: aesthetics.

Would a robot be allowed to judge the aesthetics of the patient and make changes based on programing? Or is there a human element that needs to be involved in the process? That is, how comfortable would you be with a robot making aesthetic choices? In some ways, that’s what at the heart of this question: would you let a robot perform plastic surgery on you?

The Capabilities of Modern Technology

As mentioned before, this entire premise might sound more like science fiction than science fact. But it’s probably closer to reality than you realize. Even in operating rooms today, computers are assisting surgeons with complex procedures—especially those procedures in which a steady hand is required.

We’re probably a few years off from a completely automated surgical procedure. But there would be significant benefits to that development. In theory, these automated surgical procedures could be significantly cheaper (eventually) and just as safe—not to mention more widely accessible.

To be sure, I don’t think robots are going to put surgeons out of a job anytime soon. But we should probably start getting comfortable with them in a healthcare setting, because they aren’t going anywhere.

Technology in Plastic Surgery

There is probably no plastic surgery clinic in the world where you can lay down on a table and have a robotic arm perform the operation. Yet. But that doesn’t mean that automation and artificial intelligence aren’t already helping to determine your outcomes in some ways.

For example, this type of technology in the operating room is used to:

  • Make aesthetic suggestions: In cases of complex facial surgery, for example, some surgeons may use complex algorithms and software in order to most effectively select target areas. This type of application is still largely in the research and development stage, but I won’t be shocked to see it in a surgeon’s office soon.
  • Keep track of your recovery: To some extent, surgeons are already keeping electronic records. And one thing that they keep track of is your recovery process. This can help them anticipate how you’re healing and what the final results will look like once that healing process is complete.
  • Predict treatments and outcomes: Data is always a good way to figure out what’s working and what might work in the future. That’s why many surgeons will use data and technology (not quite robots yet) in order to help them select and predict treatments for patients.

How Would You Feel?

Most of this is invisible the patient, of course. The surgeon has the experience and expertise—and that’s what you’re paying for. So it kind of avoids the interesting question that I was trying to get to: how would you feel if it wasn’t a person holding the scalpel, but a robot?

Most people I’ve talked to fall into one of two camps:

  • Uncomfortable because robots lack compassion: The thinking, among this group, is that human surgeons are going to work harder to save your life because they care in a way that is intrinsic to them being human.
  • Uncomfortable because they don’t trust robots: After all, there’s no possible way that this robot could be more prepared than a surgeon, right? Especially if something unpredictable happens.

The Benefits of a Robotic Approach

Both of those attitudes are understandable, but they miss some of the benefits of a more, uh, robotic approach to surgery. First and foremost, robots don’t tend to make mistakes nearly as often as humans do. Second, robots tend to be quite steady. And third, they can think faster—so if they’re programmed to learn they might even be able to outperform a flesh-and-blood surgeon.

Some day. We’re not there yet, of course. And it’s also important to note that, obviously, surgeons are very invested in the safety of their patients—it’s always the number one concern. So any robotic procedure would have to be safe before it’s put into practice. By the time you have to answer that “would you let a robot perform plastic surgery on you” question, those robots will have proven themselves worthy.

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