Robots have already started working alongside surgeons, but in the future they won't even have to be in the same room, or perhaps not even on the same planet.
Teleoperated surgical robots are designed to be controlled from a distance; a human operator uses a touch-sensitive haptic interface to direct the robot's movements as it performs surgery on someone who's hard to reach—maybe they're on the front lines of a war zone, or in a remote area hit by a natural disaster, or up on the International Space Station. But as information travels from the doctor's location to the robot on the scene, like any communications, it's vulnerable to attack.
In the first episode of our new series Can I Hack It?, made possible by Mr Robot on Amazon Prime, Motherboard visits researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle who are exploring how teleoperated surgical robots could be hacked before they start operating on humans.
They're using the RAVEN II surgical bot, developed by Applied Dexterity, as a research platform to expose potential security issues with this kind of device. Essentially, this means hacking it, and seeing what damage they can cause.
In a 2015 paper, engineer Tamara Bonaci and her co-authors lay out several ways the RAVEN II could be hacked, from a denial-of-service attack (essentially an interruption in service) that could bring the robot to a halt mid-operation to a malicious actor hijacking the communications to send false instructions to the robot.
The researchers point out that, in a real-world scenario, a teleoperated robot would likely be "expected to use a combination of existing publicly available networks and temporary ad-hoc wireless and satellite networks to send video, audio and other sensory information between surgeons and remote robots," making it difficult to secure the communications.
In this video, we meet Bonaci and her team at the Biorobotics Lab and see them hack the RAVEN II. Motherboard has a go at controlling the robot in a simulated surgical task when Bonaci suddenly starts an attack.
Spoiler: It's lucky we weren't operating on a real person.