First, there was HAL, the talking spaceship computer in the movie "2001." Now, there's AESOP 2000, the surgical computer robot at St. Joseph Medical Center.
In its East Coast debut yesterday, AESOP (pronounced eesop) assisted Dr. W. Peter Geis in a hernia-repair operation at the Towson hospital, listening to and following the general surgeon's commands.
"AESOP, move right," Geis commanded.
"Bleep," AESOP dutifully responded, its plastic-covered mechanical arm moving to the right.
AESOP, the latest technology in laparoscopic surgery, maneuvers and positions the laparoscope, an optical tube that gives a doctor a magnified view on a video monitor while he performs surgery -- all by simple voice commands.
The robotic presence promises to revolutionize minimally invasive surgery by saving time in the operating room and freeing hospital personnel for other duties, doctors say. Eventually, it also will allow doctors to respond to surgeries all over the world through satellites and telephone links.
"It will be hugely beneficial to patients and surgeons," said Dr. Yulun Wang, chief technical officer of Computer Motion, the California company that developed the medical robot.
Yesterday's successful surgery was only the second time in the world that the voice-controlled robot had been used in surgery on a human patient. The first was last week in California.
And Maryland has the distinction of having two other hospitals participate in AESOP's introduction. Dr. Robert W. Bailey of Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson used a voice-activated robot in an operation to repair heartburn late yesterday, a GBMC spokeswoman said. At Johns Hopkins Hospital, an AESOP unit is to be used in a kidney surgery tomorrow.
Patient Roy E. Shepherd, the St. Joseph guinea pig, had no qualms about having a robot participate in his surgery or reporters and photographers watching. "It's the upcoming thing," he said in the recovery room. "Dr. Geis was very explanatory about what was going to happen."
During the surgery, Geis managed to converse with media members and hospital staff while directing AESOP, even though the procedure became more complicated when he discovered a second hernia. But he had only words of praise for his machine partner.
"It allows a rock-steady visual field," he said, carefully guiding miniature surgical instruments to the hernias. "Look at this fat. I'm removing the fat. We never would have seen it if we had operated from the front," he said, comparing the laparoscopic procedure to conventional surgery.
Thanks to AESOP, the operation was completed in an hour and 15 minutes instead of the usual two hours, Geis said. "It decreases risks and complications."
The robot -- recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration -- knows about 30 words and only follows the voice it has been programmed to respond to, eliminating any worries about hiccups, coughs or wayward conversations interfering with AESOP's actions.
Other safety devices prevent a robot-run-amok situation. "The system does not allow the robot to damage organs," Dr. Geis said. "It can't do any disservice to any person."
Shepherd, a 59-year-old retired Bethlehem Steel worker from Dundalk, was living proof yesterday after his outpatient surgery, although he acknowledged he was sore and groggy.
"I thought it was interesting," he said. "But in two or three years, what are we going to have?"
Pub Date: 7/02/96