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This Robotic Arm Is Learning To Perform Surgery By Painting

If a steady-handed artist offered to perform life-saving surgery on you, would you allow it? Probably not - they don't really have the knowledge base necessary for the job. What if, however, it wasn't a human artist who was asking you, but a doctor equipped with an art robot? Don't laugh - that sort of thing might end up becoming very common in short order.

A young man by the name of Timothy Lee has designed an artistic robot arm capable of performing brush-strokes with every bit as much precision as a surgeon wields a scalpel - perhaps more. Eventually, it might find its way into operating rooms to help surgeons perform their procedures without even having to leave their office. In the short term, however, Lee's got the little machine working to createworks of art.

According to Lee - a sophomore who plans to pick up a major in chemistry - the inspiration for his invention came to him during his first year at Wake Forest. There, he heard about a percussion-playing robot designed by Georgia Tech researchers; a concept completely foreign to him. For Lee, who spent his high school years building a whole host of different robotic inventions, it opened up a whole new world. 

"I never really thought you could do music with robots," Lee explained. "That got me thinking, 'what else can you do with robots that most people wouldn't think about or imagine happening?' I thought I could do something with painting, and that prompted the idea of robotic surgery." 

Lee continued that painting and surgery actually have a lot more in common than one might expect. Both jobs require a steady hand and a steady eye. A painter has to be just as nimble and precise as the brush as a surgeon with their scalpel. 

"When you are dissecting a part of the human body, you have to be one hundred percent perfect," he said. "If you think about painting something like the Mona Lisa, you have to be perfect with your brush."

Supported by a team from the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Center and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering Craig Hamilton, Lee got to work on his contraption, assembling it entirely from parts purchased on line. As it turns out, that was actually the easy part. 

"Teaching a robot how to paint is a lot harder than you might think," said Lee. "At first I'd tell it to go five spaces to the left or five spaces to the right and things typically wouldn't got as planned. After weeks of programming, I eventually got to the point where the robot could paint shapes and lines in a particular color." 

From there, Lee continued, training the robot to paint something like a house or a sunset without the aid of a human operator was fairly simple. At that point, he moved on to teaching the robot to paint lines and shapes corresponding to the location of human organs.

"Our goal was to get the robot to replicate the lines and shapes a surgeon makes with a scalpel all on its own. You can think of a painting canvas as a body and the brush as a surgeon's knife."

At the moment, surgeons are equipped with a wide array of different mechanical tools. The difference between these tools and Lee's invention is that they are not autonomous - they require input from the surgeon in order to operate. Lee's prototype could be the first step towards changing that; although the model itself may not ever find its way into the operating room, it could still serve as the prototype for a new line of surgical tools.

In addition, Lee feels that the arm could be used to help train doctors in the use of the da Vinci system; the surgical machines currently utilized in the OR. "At the Wake Forest Medical Center, doctors use replica bodies to help train surgeons to use the da Vinci system," Lee said. "These replicas are pretty expensive compared to my robotic arm, which cost around $1,500." Lee will be presenting the robot at the ACC Meeting of the Minds, demonstrating its painting abilities to the undergraduates and researchers there. 

"Working with Dr. Hamilton on my robot has been a great opportunity and there are definitely still a lot of things we can still learn from it," Lee explained. "It just goes to show you that science and art are more intertwined than most people think."

So, if a painter offered to perform surgery on you, would you allow it? If that painter happened to be a robotic arm like Lee's, it might not be such a bad idea.