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Robot doctors will 'absolutely' replace surgeons

From helping humans live longer and hacking our performance, to repairing the body and understanding the brain, WIRED Health will hear from the innovators transforming this critical sector. Read all of our WIRED Health coverage here.

It's only a matter of time before robots replace surgeons in the operating theatre, according to cancer specialist virtual reality surgery pioneer Shafi Ahmed.

Ahmed is a leading proponent of virtual and augmented reality within operating theatres. In April 2016 he became the first surgeon to live-stream a surgical procedure in virtual reality, with millions of people worldwide watching him remove a tumour from the colon of a patient in his 70s.

But this isn't a new form of gory entertainment – Ahmed hopes that virtual reality can revolutionise the way surgeons are trained, especially in the developing world.

Over five billion people worldwide cannot access safe surgery, according to the Lancet Commission. To overcome this, and save seventeen million lives every year, "we need to train 2.2 million extra surgeons," Ahmed told the audience at WIRED Health.

After centuries of training surgeons in crowded operating theatres, Ahmed thinks that virtual and augmented reality can be used to train tens of thousands of students simultaneously.

All trainee surgeons need to take part in VR surgery is a 3G connection and an inexpensive Google Cardboard. Ahmed's virtual reality surgery put students from countries that usually suffer from poor access to training right in the middle of one of the world's leading hospitals,

"Surgery is all about how in you are in the theatre," Ahmed said. "What do you do when things go wrong? How do you behave?"

The next step forward in medical training, Ahmed said, is more sophisticated, and cheaper, surgical simulation equipment. Haptic feedback technology is reaching the stage where a student surgeon will be able to pick up a virtual blade and feel the sensation of holding it – and operating – in real life. "This virtual simulation will be the most explicit yet, and the best immersion we can achieve," Ahmed said.

How long until trainee surgeons can virtually operate from the comfort of their own bedroom? Ahmed is optimistic about the future of medical of medical technology: "Within the next two to three years we'll see people do this," he said.

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