Former Google scientist opens up about Verb's surgical robotics innovation

Babak Parviz

Verily's Verb Surgical spinoff is keeping quiet about its plans to build next-generation surgical robotics, providing few details about its collaboration with Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) since it teamed up with the company back in March. But now one of Google's former scientists, Babak Parviz, is opening up about the technology and offering a rare glimpse at the company's innovation process.

Back in 2010, Parviz, who now works at Amazon ($AMZN), joined Alphabet's Google X division to develop its Google Glass wearable computer, but also laid out some ideas for creating robots for the operating room. One plan included making autonomous surgical robots that could operate through a joystick and make fine-tuned movements to facilitate surgeries.

"We rely on the dexterity of human surgeons but now we know machines are quite a bit more precise than humans," Parviz told Medium. "Using a machine opens up opportunities for surgeries that are not even possible with a normal human hand."

Implementing surgical robots could also result in quick procedures and faster response times. Traditional surgery is "fundamentally limited by how fast humans can make a decision, and how fast humans can mechanically move an instrument," Parviz said. A surgical robot could spot problems like a leaking blood vessel and correct the situation much faster than a human, and could also make quick incisions that result in less blood loss for patients, Medium reports.

The technology also holds big implications for developing communities. Machines are more scalable, Parviz pointed out, and a good machine surgeon could be replicated and deployed to give people better access to care.

Verb seems to see potential in Parviz's early musings. The company recently said that it "aims to develop a comprehensive surgical solutions platform that will incorporate leading-edge robotic capabilities and best-in-class medical device technology for operating room professionals." Still, Verb is not revealing many financial details about its work with Johnson & Johnson's Ethicon surgical division, even though optimism for the project abounds.

"We believe Verb Surgical has the potential to change the future of surgery, not just robotic surgery," Gary Pruden, worldwide chairman of Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices, said in a statement. "The team has already made meaningful progress on the robotics platform, which is being developed for application across a host of surgical specialties."

A foray into surgical robotics helps Verily cash in on a growing market. The market for surgical robots will grow to $20 billion by 2021, according to WinterGreen market research numbers cited by Medium. Other companies such as Intuitive Surgical ($ISRG) and Stryker ($SYK) are already making progress in the field, even though cost and safety issues presented some obstacles along the way.

Verb could have a long road ahead as it works to gain traction with its surgical robot technology. "By no means I'm saying this is immediate, by no means I'm saying this is easy, by no means I'm saying this is even going to be cheap initially," Parviz said, as quoted by Medium. "At least for the foreseeable future, we'll have human surgeons making decisions, but the machine will execute depending on what the surgeon has decided."

- read the Medium story

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