Johns Hopkins computer scientists in collaboration with surgeons are developing new mathematical models to improve the safety and efficiency of robotic surgery:
The project, supported by a three-year National Science Foundation grant, has yielded promising early results in modeling suturing work. The researchers performed the suturing with the help of a robotic surgical device, which recorded the movements and made them available for computer analysis.
“Surgery is a skilled activity, and it has a structure that can be taught and acquired,” said Gregory D. Hager, a professor of computer science in the university’s Whiting School of Engineering and principal investigator on the project. “We can think of that structure as the language of surgery.’ To develop mathematical models for this language, we’re borrowing techniques from speech recognition technology and applying them to motion recognition and skills assessment.”
Complicated surgical tasks, Hager said, unfold in a series of steps that resemble the way that words, sentences and paragraphs are used to convey language. “In speech recognition research, we break these down to their most basic sounds, called phonemes,” he said. “Following that example, our team wants to break surgical procedures down to simple gestures that can be represented mathematically by computer software.”
With that information in hand, the computer scientists hope to be able to recognize when a surgical task is being performed well and also to identify which movements can lead to operating room problems. Just as a speech recognition program might call attention to poor pronunciation or improper syntax, the system being developed by Hager’s team might identify surgical movements that are imprecise or too time-consuming.
But to get to that point, computers first must become fluent in the “language” of surgery. This will require computers to absorb data concerning the best ways to complete surgical tasks. As a first step, the researchers have begun collecting data recorded by Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci Surgical Systems. These systems allow a surgeon, seated at a computer workstation, to guide robotic tools to perform minimally invasive procedures involving the heart, the prostate and other organs. Although only a tiny fraction of hospital operations involve the da Vinci, the device’s value to Hager’s team is that all of the robot’s surgical movements can be digitally recorded and processed. In a paper presented at the Medical Image Computing and Computer-Assisted Intervention Conference in October 2005, Hager’s team announced that it had developed a way to use data from the da Vinci to mathematically model surgical tasks such as suturing, a key first step in deciphering the language of surgery.