Go under the knife at Saint Francis Hospital-Memphis these days, and chances are it’ll actually be a robot — operated by a human professional, of course — that’s holding the scalpel in place.
The hospital has for the past few years been investing in robotic arms and an assortment of other high-tech, ultra-precise robotic units that’s part of a trend toward more precision and refinement in surgical care. Saint Francis-Memphis, in fact, is the first hospital in the region to start offering total knee replacements using its Stryker Mako Robotic Arm system, a step up from using that system to perform partial knee surgeries over the past decade.
The way the robotic arm system works — it looks just like it sounds, built around an arm — is like a machine controlled by surgeons who can use it to create a customized surgical plan, one that includes optimized implant positioning using a CT scan of the patient’s knee.
During the surgery, the surgeon uses feedback delivered from the robotic arm to make real-time adjustments to the plan. So, with that accurate 3D model of the patient’s knee provided before the procedure, the surgeon now knows everything from the shape of the bone to the size of the implant that’s needed and where to make the most precise cut so that the implant fits better.
All of which, says Heather Livingston, director for nursing surgical services at Saint Francis-Memphis, helps reduce pain and minimize hospitalization for patients, in addition to helping give them a quicker recovery.
“As the surgeons are actually doing the surgery, they’re using that 3D plan for orientation and alignment based on each patient’s unique anatomy,” she says. “It’s awesome and much different than what we had when I started in the operating room back in 1987, when they were just sort of using their own eyes, right? It’s really amazing technology.”
And it’s not just about better knee surgery results. Saint Francis-Memphis also recently invested $1.2 million to upgrade its Mazor Robotics’ Renaissance technology with the Mazor X Robotic Guidance System — the latest-generation technology available from Medtronic for use in spinal surgeries. As with the knee surgery robot, this system lets surgeons start a spinal procedure armed with a highly precise and detailed surgical plan that can be executed using the Mazor X system’s trajectory guidance.
It makes sense to see robotic technology showing up in operating rooms and major hospitals. The important thing about Saint Francis’ investment in robots, though, is that it’s a reminder of what’s coming in general, even beyond healthcare. It extends across a slew of industries, in fact, to different employers in different fields and in a way that will potentially reshape the Memphis economy in a profound way.
Which is not to say this is only a Memphis thing either, of course. Robots and algorithms and machine learning are already reorienting our daily lives and rearranging the pieces of what normal life feels like in modern-day America.
It’s everywhere you look. Did you order a package from Amazon recently? Robots and automated package sorters helped guide it on its journey from the warehouse to your door. FedEx founder Fred Smith himself told an audience last year at an event at the University of Memphis — the National Council on Undergraduate Research conference — to not fear innovations like robotics. “It makes goods less expensive,” he said. “It makes life better.” As a visual demonstration, he showed off “Lil’ Rico,” the name of a robot used in a FedEx TechConnect repair center in Collierville to ferry items around the facility, a productivity advantage that saves workers time.
A few weeks before, Smith said, FedEx had installed a robot named Sam that customers would encounter in a FedEx office location in Manhattan. This robot, too, ferries items around a facility.
On a related note, FedEx’s chief executive has spoken publicly several times about how autonomous vehicles are coming to the package delivery giant, a company with human-operated delivery trucks decorated with FedEx’s familiar logo on the side that have become a highly recognizable part of its cultural cachet.
Depending on how you look at this, it can sound like a far-future reality, the stuff of science fiction. Robots taking our jobs. Robots as pets, robots that can interact with us at a near human-level of understanding. But the fact of the matter is that even in a place like Memphis — which is almost as far removed as you can get from the techies on the coasts and all the venture capital that sloshes around Silicon Valley — the robot revolution coming to America is already here. And we can see its effects.
Not only that, but companies, the general workforce, schools, students, professionals — basically everyone — will be affected by it to one degree or another.
“Emerging technologies are rapidly transforming the professional landscape as we know it,” explains Cody Behles, assistant director for innovation research and support at the U of M’s FedEx Institute of Technology. “Robotics represents one of the greatest opportunities for new careers, but it also means a great deal of disruption and requires us to rethink the relationship between work and society. By its very nature, robotics are most easily applied to repetitive and manual tasks such as manufacturing, food service, and even driving a car. As with automation of any industry, the introduction of technology reduces the requirement for human labor, leading to fewer jobs overall.”
That, he continues, leads to the need for a conversation on robotics that should be focused on how we provide for anyone whose job is displaced by the new technology. And that we should work to mitigate the creation of a permanent underclass, so that everyone has an opportunity to have a better quality of life in this new world.
“The invention of the car may have put blacksmiths and horse-drawn carriages out of business, but it created auto mechanics, driving jobs, and manufacturing positions that never existed when horses were the primary mode of transport,” Behles says. “We sit at a similar junction, and we shouldn’t see change as a good or bad, it just is and we should think creatively about how we move forward.”
One way that thinking creatively is done is by educating the people who are coming into this workforce, before they actually get into it. It requires exposing them to concepts like robotics and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), which prepares them for the jobs of tomorrow that are already arriving today.
Along those lines, the blight at Frayser Plaza over the next 12 months or so is making way for what will become Harmony Plaza, transforming the former shopping center into a multi-use concept anchored around Memphis STEM Academy. The school is moving there after operating out of an incubator space inside a church for a few years, adding some 150 new students to boost its enrollment to 450, and introducing them to everything from drones to subjects like science and math.
The academy’s parent organization, Harmony Schools, also includes several components of the Memphis Business Academy network that teach students how to be coders and how to build robots.
Over at White Station High School, many of the 50 or so students who have joined the school’s competitive robotics team say they’ve done so because of the satisfaction of coming together to build something tangible like a robot.
Such a project lays the groundwork for a future career and for sustained interest in what will only be a more relevant and more significant industry as time marches on.
Right now, the team is in its off-season. So no competitions on the horizon, but members are still meeting regularly to plan, learn, and hone their skills. One interesting stat: almost 30 percent of the team is female.
“I’m the head of the business team,” 10th-grader Dinah Patt explains, showing how robotics also doesn’t have to be exclusively about coding and computers. There are, in fact, other opportunities that come with it, such as the marketing and sponsorship kinds of tasks that are required to support the school’s team. “We have a lot of fun together. It becomes like a family, and it’s cool to see what all these brilliant minds can come together and do to create something really cool.”
Team captain Andrew Rutledge adds that most of them are doing this because they have some degree of interest in the field. Senior Joanna Xioa agrees that the team aspect is what makes the group’s efforts so compelling. “Because there aren’t many times you’re able to be a part of something like this and work together to make something,” she says.
While everyone is waiting and wondering about when some kind of Hollywood-inspired vision of our robotic future will eventually arrive — well, it’s like that line from HBO’s The Wire, about life being all the things that happen while you’re waiting for moments that never come. The robots, the machines — they’re already here. They’re already having an effect, on everything from education to the operation of companies today. And we can make some assumptions about what tomorrow will look like based on the influence this technology is already having now.
Take iQor, a global company with a major presence in Memphis that repairs and provides support for electronic gadgets.
This spring, the company announced an expansion here in support of its “360-degree customer and product experience offering.” One hundred new jobs will boost the total workforce at the 570,000-square-foot facility in South Memphis to around 1,000 workers.
David Travis, iQor director of innovation, says the company has several robots in use on the floor in Memphis. Walking through what the company uses those robots for, and why, provides insight into the use that businesses see for robotic technology. And also where humans, with all our frailty and fallibility compared to a robot, fit into the picture.
“We have a fully automated receiving line, where there’s a conveyor system that has intelligence controls built in behind it to route and move material around when we perform our receipt operations,” he explains.
“We also have robotic arms on the floor that are picking up and handling and manipulating products. The automated receiving line right now we use to receive about 40,000 units a day into the facility. And it basically goes in and scans barcodes on all the products and then performs a sorting operation based off of criteria that we have. The robotic arms are focused on picking product up and moving it in three-dimensional space in front of an array of cameras. So I can use machine vision and machine learning to analyze that product and identify if there are any cosmetic defects in it that would need to be repaired in the refurbishment operation. We’re using that machine vision and machine learning to go in and basically take subjectivity out of the operation.”
Tasks that require repetition and lots of repetitive motion are what he says robots are perfect for. And they free up human workers to do other things and add value in different ways to the company.
“We’re not necessarily trying to eliminate the operators,” Travis says. “That’s not the goal. The goal is to eliminate the task that people don’t want to do, because it’s repetitive, it’s monotonous, it’s boring. A lot of what we’re doing today requires human thought. Nobody’s taught a robot to untie knots, especially random knots of cables. You need human thought in a lot of what we’re doing today, and we want to put our people in positions where they can think more and be more involved with the operation than picking up something at Point A and putting it down at Point B.”