Verily, the artist formerly known as Google Life Sciences, announced a collaboration with Johnson & Johnson (J&J) on Thursday called Verb Surgical. Their goal? To make better, smarter robotic surgical assistants.
Ethicon (J&J’s medical devices division) already has quite a bit of experience in the surgical field. The company designed a prototype of the surgical robot last year, expecting it to make a splash in the field of robotic surgery.
J&J initially announced the collaboration with Google in March of this year to advance surgical robotics. However, this is the first announcement of an actual company to be born out of this collaboration. And even then, it’s a somewhat secretive announcement. Neither Verily nor J&J has released many details on the matter. Most of what’s been made known to the general public thus far is the company’s location in Mountain View, California (Google’s home base) and that both companies have given intellectual property, R&D, and other managerial and surgical resources to Verb Surgical.
Gary Pruden, global chairman of Ethicon, says that Verb’s surgical robot is expected to be one-fifth the size of current surgical robots, many of which are as large as a compact car and require the surgeon to work at a control panel ten feet away from the patient. J&J also said that Verb’s robot is designed for a much wider use than current models, expected to perform procedures like thoracic, colorectal, and bariatric surgeries.
Verb’s surgical robot will likely come equipped with a stock of Alphabet technologies, including machine learning programs that might be able to analyze libraries of images from hundreds of past surgeries to tell the surgeon where to make the incision. Verb mentions on their website that they envision “A new future, a future unimagined even a few years ago, which will involve machine learning, robotic surgery, instrumentation, advanced visualization, and data analytics.”
Google and J&J clearly have ambitions to completely redesign the OR with robotic assistants, and who knows what else will come from the new company. Let’s hope they’re keeping the surgeons in mind in developing robotic solutions for the OR—new technology like this is going to require a lot of training if they want surgeons to successfully operate the device. They claim to have clinician partners working alongside the project, so hopefully these clinicians are helping to develop a comprehensive training plan, otherwise no one’s going to have the expertise to use the new robots.
Despite these slight misgivings, the support of a consumer-oriented company like Google participating in healthcare (as you may already know, Verily is currently working on a glucose-sensing contact lens) is definitely promising, because it offers an “outsider’s” perspective on designing medical device technologies. J&J said the development of Verb’s surgical robot will take a few years—I for one am excited to see what these two giants come up with.