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The Broader Picture: RoboDoc

THIS SURGICAL robot, nicknamed da Vinci, is practising heart surgery on a cadaver. Developed by Intuitive Surgical in Mountain View, California, da Vincis, which cost $500,000 (pounds 315,000) each, are already performing operations on live humans in Paris and Brussels.

While a traditional coronary bypass requires open-heart surgery - doctors saw through the breastbone, then pry open the rib cage with a steel retractor to gain access to the heart - robotic systems allow doctors to go inside the patient's body with tiny instruments, operated by remote control, that mimic their skills with incredible precision. Instead of leaving patients with foot-long scars and the sensation that they have been hit by a truck, this "closed-chest surgery" leaves minimal scarring and reduces recovery time.

In a typical robotic heart operation, tubes from the robot are inserted through three half-inch incisions made between the patient's ribs. A camera and the tiny tools which will complete the surgery are passed down these tubes. From the computer console where he is sitting, the surgeon manipulates a joystick about as wide as a pencil and inside the patient's chest the robot imitates his movements. When the surgeon's hand moves an eighth of an inch, the scalpel moves just a 40th of an inch, increasing precision and reducing the effect of hand tremors.

Some surgeons predict that within a decade two out of three heart operations will be performed via robots. Even transcontinental operations - a surgeon in Birmingham, for example, operating by robot on a patient in Tokyo - could become commonplace.