In the thirty-something years since the first robot was used in a surgical procedure, technology has advanced at a meteoric pace. In some medical specialties, robotics are commonplace. One area that has largely lagged behind the trend? Aesthetic medicine. Patients take great care to find and choose a provider who they trust to perform the procedure or surgery they are interested in, and, the overwhelming majority of the time, that same person is going to be the one providing the service – be it injecting in the office or operating in the OR. But will it be that way forever?
Behind the scenes, there's a slow but steady influx of robots that are changing the way procedures are carried out and how patients receive care. From robot-assisted surgery to artificial intelligence (AI)-directed skincare analysis, tech is making waves in doctors' offices. Whenever we talk about robotics – especially in a healthcare setting – questions are (rightly) raised about how safe these machines are and what the future might look like if they are adopted more widely. How independent can this technology really be? At what point can we step back and let a robot take the reins during a procedure? Are those even things that we should be striving for?
To explore the topic in more detail, we're looking at the state of robotics usage in aesthetic medicine and what the future could look like. Here’s what you need to know about the ever-evolving relationship between beauty and technology.
The Role of Robots in Aesthetic Medicine
The robots we have available to us at the moment are best at completing repetitive tasks with accuracy. So, while they may not be gifted with creative thinking or problem solving, there are tasks they can complete within a medical setting. Case in point:
Robotics in Hair Restoration
One area of cosmetic procedures that has been the focus for engineers is hair transplantation. When carried out by humans, follicular unit extraction (FUE) – the act of explanting thousands of individual hair follicles from a donor site and implanting them elsewhere – is a very lengthy and repetitive process. The ARTAS® robotic hair transplant system is looking to change that.
ARTAS® is an autonomous robotic procedure during which a robotic arm extracts and implants hair follicles. The procedure is a trailblazer in robotic medicine in the aesthetics space, however, it does have its limitations. The system is approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use on patients with dark, straight hair. Hair transplants carried out by humans, meanwhile, are approved for most demographics.
Additionally, the system is used to plan out the procedure and execute it, which means a surgeon's input remains vital to the consultation and planning process. But, if the procedure goes to plan, the machine takes care of the rest.
Robotic Laser Therapy
Laser-based procedures are also seeing robotic innovation. EON® by Dominion Aesthetics is seeking to provide next-generation body contouring. The touchless technology uses precision robotics to simultaneously deliver laser energy and cooling to ensure a comfortable and efficacious experience. The system uses a robotic arm to scan a patient’s body. The technology then devises a 'map' for the laser to follow. From there, the autonomous laser works to reduce fat in a targeted way. The procedure is FDA-cleared for abdominal fat reduction, but the manufacturer expects additional approvals in the future.
Robotic lasers are also the focus of SAHARRA (a.k.a. semi-autonomous hair removal robot assistant), which is looking to improve the precision and speed of the laser hair removal process. Like EON®, the robot scans the area that needs to be treated, decides what positions to adopt to treat each site, and figures out the different types or strengths of energy that should be used for the most efficient results. It then carries out the procedure with minimal input from human operators.
In theory, it’s not unthinkable that the technology used for hair transplants could be adapted to carry out minimally invasive procedures such as Botox® or filler injections. Current technology, however, is void of one crucial factor – artistry. One of the most essential skills of an injector (besides a deep knowledge of anatomy) is an understanding of facial harmony. So, while the physical technology may be making strides toward automating minimally invasive procedures, including injectables, the AI behind the machines (a.k.a. their brains) still has a ways to go.
Paris-based aesthetic provider Emmanuel Elard, MD, has created a robot capable of injecting Botox® and filler. The machine – created by Dr. Elard's tech firm NextMotion – is named LENA (a.k.a. light enabled neuro-robotic arm), and it can inject patients with neuromodulators and dermal filler using a robotic arm powered by AI. Even so, the tech still relies on a doctor's know-how. The provider programs the tool to specify how much product to inject and where to inject it. Basically, it’s robot-assisted injections.
When a cosmetic procedure is carried out by a board certified provider, a number of factors come into play. When it comes to injectables, for example, your practitioner may ask you to move your face or make certain expressions during treatment so they can look for possible asymmetries and assess where to inject. The degree of nuance involved is so high that it would take an incredibly powerful computer to take in all of that information, process it, and then make a judgment as to where and how to inject.
The Role of AI in Beauty & Aesthetics
Perhaps more than robotics, AI has found a purpose in the beauty and aesthetics industry that is seemingly here to stay. Haut.AI is behind many of the skin analysis tools you’ve no doubt tried online or in apps. L'Oréal unveiled what it bills as the world's first AI-powered device for skincare and cosmetics at the 2020 CES convention. And AEDIT’s patented facial morphing technology, The AEDITOR, allows users to ‘try on’ popular aesthetic procedures and instantly visualize medically accurate results. In the future, it's conceivable that engineers may look to create robotic devices that process the information established by the AI tech already available to offer in-office or at-home treatments.
Amy Spizuoco, DO, a board certified dermatologist in New York City, believes these analysis tools could have value “in a big practice to allow each patient to have access to great skincare,” but she doesn’t see them replacing human expertise. “Humans will always be better,” she emphasizes. “I believe it's best to see patients live and create a customized skincare routine together.” In her experience, that personal touch yields quality, long-term results. “It's best to know and understand your patients,” she shares. “This allows for the best skincare routine."
Many say that robots have the ability to perform more predictably than humans in an array of settings, but healthcare is an area where people are yet to be fully convinced. The idea of a machine operating on someone completely independently of a surgeon probably won’t be commonplace in the near future, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value (especially when it comes to caring for people in remote areas where expert medical staff isn’t available) to exploring it. Will we see robots replace plastic surgeons and dermatologists in our lifetime? Probably not, but they just might start lending a helping hand sooner than we expect!
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