WonderCon 2015: Science in Science Fiction - How Sci-Fi Predicted A Medical Robot Revolution

Monday, 06 April 2015 - 4:32PM
Medical Tech
Monday, 06 April 2015 - 4:32PM
If you've never been, you may think WonderCon is all comic books and cosplays, but the weekend-long event in Anaheim offers so much more than simply geekery. The educational programming at WonderCon often provides some of the most interesting moments of the whole weekend, and similar to the Outer Places 'Science of Star Wars' panel, which was held on Friday, Kyle Kurpinski and Terry Johnson's 'Science in Science Fiction' panel offered some great insights into how the sci-fi has made some startling predictions about the future of the medical industry. Kurpinski and Johnson are experts in the field of bioengineering, a field that has had more than a little bit of air time in sci-fi movies both new and old. Here's a summary of what was a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening panel.


The first focus on the panel fell upon the area of prosthetics. As Kurpinski stated, prosthetics are something that science fiction has portrayed repeatedly throughout the history of the genre. But what was once thought of as pure fantasy has now now not only become a reality, but also an incredibly affordable one. Prosthetics play a prominent role in George Lucas's Star Wars movies and Kurpinski used the example of Luke Skywalker's prosthetic hand to illustrate just how far this field has come since 'Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back' was released back in 1980. Back then, the prosthetic hand you see in the image above would have been considered absolutely implausible. Fast forward 35 years and responsive prosthetics aren't just possible, they're being 3D-printed in people's homes!

For example, watch the video below and show how an advanced (not 3D-printed) prosthetic arm is able to change the life of a man who lost his arm in an accident. 

To further demonstrate his point about the advancement of prosthetics engineering, Kurpinski gave examples -from both science fiction and real-life- of how prosthetics could be used to not just restore basic abilities to one's life, but even to enrich it.

In the reboot of Robocop, we see Gary Oldman's character helping amputees re-learn how to play music with their new prostheses, and while that may seem like pure fiction, real-life technology has almost caught up with the tech being portrayed in Hollywood movies, allowing for the creation of some truly remarkable prosthetics, just like the one which allows John Barnes to continue his passion for drumming.

Robotic Doctors
In his segment of the panel, Terry Johnson chose to focus on the way in which robotics are helping to aid in a range of medical care areas, specifically surgery and day-to-day caregiving. While robots carrying out complex surgeries may have once seemed like something out of a fictional dystopia, Johnson drew attention to a few of the many automated surgical procedures in which robotics now play a major part.

The Da Vinci Surgical robots you saw in the video above, for example, were approved by the FDA back in 2000 and have now conducted hundreds of thousands of complex surgeries from cardiac valve repair to prostatectomies. Controlled by a human surgeon, the Da Vinci surgical units allow minimally invasive procedures to be carried out with the kind of precision a human hand could rarely ever allow for. Johnson noted how this remarkable machine resembles the fearsome Med-Pod from Ridley Scott's Prometheus, and it's that harsh appearance that distinguishes the Da Vinci robot from many of the more modern robotic medical systems. 

Just like Big Hero 6's adorable healthcare assistant, Baymax, many medical robots are taking on a form that is increasingly appealing to the human eye. That's all because, unlike the Da Vinci robot, many of the procedures these robots are involved in require humans to be awake, meaning that an appearance that resembles a sci-fi torture machine will likely cause unnecessary stress to the patient. This human form factor is becoming an important consideration for developers of medical robotics. The Japanese robotic caregiver, ROBEAR, is the example used by Johnson to illustrate this point, and when you watch the video below, the similarities between this prototype caregiver and the loveable Baymax are clear to see.

But it's not just a loveable (and slightly creepy) face that these robots need to possess in order to be efficient caregivers. Like Baymax, systems such as ROBEAR must also be incredibly strong if they are to be able to perform their job. Taking away the strain of lifting a human body is one of the main reasons that systems such as ROBEAR are being developed, because as Johnson said during his panel, injuries related to such tasks are one of the biggest contributors to human caregivers being forced to take early retirement. 

The examples laid out above all serve to prove that science fiction's fascination with robotic medical systems was actually remarkably well-placed. While we may be a long way off from the all-curing medical pods seen in Neill Blomkamp's Elysium, it seems that now more than ever our hospitals are becoming increasingly automated, and this rapid development in medical technology shows no signs of slowing down. Soon it won't just be humans fighting the war on disease and injury, it could be artificial intelligence too.

If you're hungry for more Science of Sci-Fi, check out Kurpinski and Johnson's book, How to Deafeat Your Own Clone - And Other Tips For Surviving the Biotech Revolution
Science of Sci-Fi
Medical Tech

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