Artificial intelligence and robotics disrupting work is now something of a cliché. While the optimistic scenario for human labour is that automation will create many new jobs even as it makes existing ones redundant, that will need near-continuous upskilling. But what if automation, however inadvertently, comes in the way of upskilling? A paper published in SAGE Journals shows that robotic surgery disrupts the training of surgical trainees in the US, where more than a third of the hospitals have at least one surgery-robot and the technology has been around for at least two generations of surgeons. Author Matt Beane, of the University of California Santa Barbara, studied hundreds of robotic and “traditional” surgeries—and found that robots impeded training, and only a minority of residents (trainees) found effective alternatives.
The study focusses on the use of Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci surgical system, controlled by a surgeon via a console some 15-feet away from the surgery table. In traditional surgery, the surgeon needs trainees to actively participate under her guidance. Now, residents perform only basic support functions or sit at a second console, watching the surgical action. With little requirement of residents’ involvement, practice and honing suffers. To be sure, in traditional surgeries too, all residents are not required at the surgery table, but those who reach the table-side get substantially more practice than with robotic surgery. Senior surgeons tended to grant lesser practice and also limited instruction, frequently taking control away from the residents’ console in case of even minor errors. Beane says very few residents thus developed the desired mastery of robotic surgery and many who successfully completed their residency did so via “unsupervised struggle”—performing robotic surgical work with little supervision, raising legal and ethical red flags. Automation may ultimately prove beneficial, but there are challenges that need to be worked out too.