Better landlines and hard-wired internet connections have made lag less of an issue. When Anvari operated on his first set of patients, there was a delay of about 175 milliseconds which is imperceptible. Yet with distance comes more lag time, and interruptions still risk disaster. “It’s not realistic to expect these robots to go into autopilot mode and finish the surgery,” says Tamas Haidegger, a researcher at Obuda University in Budapest who studies space telesurgery.
This will certainly be an issue for operations conducted at great distances – such as in deep space or Mars. Out there, robots that use algorithms and databases to make decisions during surgery will be required, says Mangai Prabakar, an engineer at Florida International University who designs smart robots. “If they can just maintain the communication link between Earth and the space shuttle, then they can be guided by the surgeon on earth,” she says. “But Mars is really far, and we can’t communicate over such a huge distance.” Mangai says that for long distance space travel, we’re going to have to build robots that we can trust to do full surgeries without a human guiding the scalpel on Earth. And that will require incredibly powerful computers.
After all, surgery is hard. “You can have a master surgical plan, and things can go wrong,” says Haidegger. “We can’t predict what’s going to happen in an advanced stage of surgery. If blood circulation collapses, breathing stops, or there’s an unforeseen reaction to drugs or chemicals, these are cases that you need a trained surgeon on site.”
Nonetheless, Haidegger believes a remote-control robot augmented with artificial intelligence will come with time and increased demand. And that demand will likely come from space as much as Earth. The growth of commercial spaceflight has generated interesting questions about telerobotic surgeries. Given that people of various ages and health backgrounds can fly with SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, the probability of someone needing emergency surgery on a commercial flight could be higher, and the demand for telesurgeons higher with it.