Lawsuit: Surgical robot is defective

A group of German patients has filed a lawsuit against financially beleaguered Integrated Surgical Systems Inc., alleging that the Davis company' Robodoc surgical robot is "defective and dangerous," according to a company filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The class action was filed in Yolo County Superior Court Dec. 17, six months after Integrated Surgical System's product liability insurance coverage was terminated because the company could not pay the premiums. The company has retained a California-based attorney and is working on reinstating its insurance, said chief executive officer Ramesh Trivedi. It's not yet clear if that will help the company pays for the legal defense. "We believe there is no merit to this case," Trivedi said. "We will explore everything we need to do to defend the case vigorously."


The Robodoc joint replacement system incorporates presurgical planning software with a computer-controlled robot that prepares bones to receive hip and knee implants. Doctors have said that it allows much greater precision than conventional techniques but that it adds time to surgical procedures.

The Robodoc system was invented by William Bargar, an orthopedic surgeon at Sutter General Hospital, and the late Hap Paul, who was a veterinarian and University of California Davis assistant clinical professor of human orthopedics.

Bargar was on vacation Wednesday and could not be reached for comment. Bankruptcy's an option Robodoc has been used for 14,000 to 15,000 surgeries around the world. German surgeons started using it in 1995. "This is the first time we have received a complaint," Trivedi said.

About seven or eight patients are involved in the lawsuit. "It doesn't detail what were the problems for each patient," he said. The company is trying to gather more information about the complaint and has not yet filed a response in court.

ROBOTS TEAM UP

Imagine yourself as an incredibly dumb animal. You can't see very well, you don't have a memory and you can't think beyond the dictates of a few very simple behavior patterns. You and a group of similarly rudimentary beasts are faced with a task far too complex for any of you to comprehend. How can you possibly succeed? The same way that ants, bees and other dim creatures do: teamwork. Coaches and managers spend their lives pounding this into people's heads. There's something about pulling together that enables unremarkable beings to accomplish remarkable feats. What's new is that in the past few years, robotics researchers have been finding ways to give machines this same capacity.

In theory, it's already clear that ganging up with swarms of relatively simple robots could be a cheaper and more reliable way of doing things from space exploration to mowing the lawn. But scientists are just beginning to sketch out the best configurations for these multi-agent systems. How many robots of what type would be most cost effective? And how should the robots be organized? Lacking precedents in the realm of technology, robot researchers have increasingly turned to etiology-the study of animal behavior.

One such investigator is Dr. Ron Arkin, professor of computer science at Georgia Tech. He and his collaborators are developing techniques to help designers tailor multi-agent systems for particular uses. In the process, they've examined the behavior of animals ranging from fish to whiptail wallabies.

First on their agenda is determining the importance of communication amongst members of a group. Although anyone who's ever screamed "Fumble!" or "I'm open!" in a football game knows that talking is a part of teamwork, Arkin wanted to quantify its importance so that designers could decide whether the added complexity and expense was justified in robotic applications.

In his initial work, Arkin's robots were actually simple assemblages of behaviors concocted on a computer. The computer put these simulated robots through a scenario in which they searched for objects scattered throughout an obstacle-studded area. When they found one of these goals, they were to drag it back to a home base.

In his initial work, Arkin's robots were actually simple assemblages of behaviors concocted on a computer. The computer put these simulated robots through a scenario in which they searched for objects scattered throughout an obstacle-studded area. When they found one of these goals, they were to drag it back to a home base.

The robots' brains were created by weaving together simple rules, or schemas, for reacting to the outside world. One schema, for example, directed the robot to move away from obstacles. Another directed it to move toward goals. And a schema called "noise" added an element of randomness to its behavior. Depending on the situation, different schemas would be active in varying degrees. For example, when no goals were within a robot's detection range, the noise schema would dominate, causing the robot to hunt around randomly. At the same time, other schemas would continue to act, steering the robot around obstacles and repelling it from its teammates so they stayed spread out over a broad search area.

This configuration of schemas, known as the forage state, is one of three such behavioral states that each robot in the simulation is capable of. The other two are the acquire state, which the robot shifts into when a goal is detected, and the retrieve state, which is used to drag the goal home once it has been acquired. Arkin found that even without communication, robots equipped with this type of intelligence were capable of working together well. Up to a point at least, increasing the number of robots made the work go faster, and simple forms of cooperation occurred spontaneously.

The next step was to see how communication affected team performance. Arkin's approach was for each robot to send out a steady broadcast declaring its behavioral state. This is analogous to animal display behaviors, such as a dog raising its hackles or a peacock spreading its tail. Robots in the forage state would listen for broadcasts from robots in the acquire or retrieve states. They would then home in on the broadcasting robot, and when the goal it was dragging or pursuing came into range, switch over to homing in on that. Arkin expected that this type of communication would prevent robots from wasting time groping around when they could be helping another robot drag home a goal faster.

This turned out to be true. In one case, four robots searching for two goals in a field that was 10% covered with obstacles completed their job 30% faster when communicating than when not. Arkin has now set up a real robotic system to verify his simulations. After that, he'll be experimenting with more complex social structures, featuring specialized robots optimized for certain tasks like worker and soldier ants are. As these robot societies grow more sophisticated, one can only expect that the parallels between them and animals will grow deeper and more complex.

He uses robots to divide and conquer

A handful of small, boxy robots scurried across the floor in a row, their red, blue and green lights blinking. Suddenly they broke into song -- "Hi ho, hi ho. It's off to work we go" -- and then scattered in all directions. ADVERTISEMENT This "swarm" of simple robots is James McLurkin's contribution to cutting-edge robotics. McLurkin, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said his computer programming can save lives, time and money by teaching dozens of small robots to clear land mines or explore the surface of Mars, for instance. "The field is very new, and what I've been doing is creating a toolbox of behaviors," said McLurkin, 32, who works among the odd angles and slopes of MIT's new Stat Center. "I'm looking for insights on how simple robots can get together and do very complex tasks." In 2003, McLurkin won the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness, and took his robots to a Virginia military base to put them through their paces for the Army's research and development wing, DARPA. "It was robotics research the likes of which I'd never seen before," said Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, the Burlington Company with which McLurkin conducted the DARPA research. "Creating a programming language for more than 100 robots, an ecology of small robots, there were a number of little challenges James was taking on, all of them very cool." Tonight, McLurkin and his mini-robots will be featured in the debut of the new public television show, "NOVA Science NOW." McLurkin grew up on Long Island in New York where he said he was something of a troublemaker in school, often bored by learning only through books and lectures. McLurkin preferred hands-on learning, experimenting,trial and error. As a child, he built with Legos and erector sets, added gears to his BMX dirt bike, and copied basic programs into his Atari 800XL. He has been building robots since high school when he programmed a remote-control car, armed with a water pistol, to seek out and soak his parents.

"I am not a theoretician," he said about his undergraduate years at MIT. "As critical as math and proofs were, without connecting it to something I could get my hands on, I struggled. Even if I could understand the math, I could not place it in my structure of knowledge. And if you don't know where to put something, you'll lose it." McLurkin brings this tactile understanding to his work as an instructor at MIT's SEED program, a weekend math and science enrichment class for Boston and Cambridge public high-school students. In recent computer-science course, for example, he used a deck of cards to demonstrate a "binary search algorithm" used to help computers sort through vast amounts of data. James' teaching style is very kinetic and exciting to the kids," said Nicole Stark, SEED's program coordinator. "These are often not kids who are engaged by blackboard learning. It's really liberating to a lot of them." In addition to teaching high-school students, pursuing his PhD and working in the robotics lab, McLurkin is also a teaching assistant for MIT undergraduate courses, an attentive steward of his ant farm, a motorcycle enthusiast, and an avid video-game player.

 

. It makes for a busy schedule, which McLurkin approaches like an industrial engineer. On tonight's television segment, McLurkin reveals how he manages to wash his laundry only once every six weeks -- it involves a lot of underwear and T-shirts -- and his algorithm for finding true love. Time management became a serious issue for McLurkin as a sophomore at MIT when he began to struggle academically and took a hard look at how he spent his days. "It shocked me how much time I was wasting," he said. Some of the keys to efficiency are avoiding mistakes (like leaving the keys to the robotics lab back at his apartment) and giving tasks enough time for their completion in order to minimize the time spent stopping one task and starting another. McLurkin calls this "context switching," a computer-science term he has borrowed for his daily life. "Your computer has various applications running, but you only have one processor. So there's a lot of saving and loading time," he explained. McLurkin believes all this time management will help him achieve what he calls a "life goal" -- developing a programming language that would allow the swarm of robots to figure out by themselves how to break a complicated task into small pieces each completed by a group of robots. "I want to stay in academia," he said, "and build the world's coolest robots."

Home: Somerville

First computer: Atari 800XL with 64 kilobytes of memory.

Education: Received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering with a minor in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1995, and a master's of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in 1999.

Tips for saving time: "I make sure to check e-mail at most three times a day. I take time to sleep. If I sleep, I do not get sick. It's that simple. I got the flu this winter, which was very uncomfortable and a waste of time, too. It's much more efficient to stay healthy."

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