In fact, Tejas Patel, Apex’s chief interventional cardiologist, was some 20 miles from the patient. In the world’s first remote human heart surgery, he manipulated a teleoperated robot via joysticks at a makeshift workstation in a Hindu temple, chosen for its unmistakable spiritual significance and reliable internet connection.
The angioplasty wasn’t the first-ever surgery via the internet: In 2001 two surgeons in New York extracted a person’s gallbladder in France. Nonetheless, most robotic procedures these days involve patient, surgeon, and robot in fairly close proximity. But as connectivity improves and mobile networks get faster and less laggy, some startups and surgeons think it’s time to make internet surgery a routine option. “This technology is going to eliminate distance between doctors and patients in underprivileged areas,” Patel says. “I will love to do this procedure transcontinentally.”
The angioplasty in Gujarat was one of five, all successful, performed using a robot called CorPath, built by Boston-area startup Corindus Vascular Robotics. (The company was recently acquired by Siemens Healthineers for $1.1 billion.) Corindus started selling its bot in 2012, for use by a surgeon at a patient’s side. But a few years ago its leaders began investing heavily in telesurgery. The bet was that internet and wireless networks could let surgeons phone it in from almost anywhere—if carriers could fix the occasional glitches that mar video calls. “You don’t want that if you’re inside someone’s heart or brain,” says Corindus CEO Mark Toland. “You have to feel that you’re in the room.”
Internet connections are now looking reliable enough. In Gujarat, the procedure was performed over a fiber-optic link; in the US, Corindus is testing surgeries over 5G mobile networks. In one recent trial, a doctor in Boston steered a catheter through a surgical simulator, complete with digital beating heart, laid out on a table thousands of miles away at a test facility in San Francisco. Imagine: If doctors were able to perform remote emergency procedures to treat heart attacks or strokes on, say, military vessels, or in parts of the world like rural India that have few heart specialists but are relatively rich in mobile coverage, a lot of lives could be saved. “There are millions of patients who die—or live with severe problems—because treatment was not available on time,” Patel says. Surgeons won’t all become remote workers overnight, and internet infrastructure evolves slowly, but with 5G, eventually, there might always be a doctor in the house. —Tom Simonite
Assembly Lines Powered By Data—and Fewer Humans
At Foxconn’s megafactory in Shenzhen, China, thousands of young people shuffle between cramped dorms and monotonous production lines. But in one vast space, where green lights glow atop rows of humming equipment, robots ferry parts between machines, mechanical arms grab and place widgets at superhuman speed and precision, and cameras inspect circuit boards for defects. Few humans are present.
This is a new kind of assembly line, and it may someday put many humans out of a job. Behind all the automation is a tsunami of data. The machines send incredible amounts of information at astonishing speed—every detail of their behavior and performance—to 5G transmitters dotted around the building. It’s called Industry 4.0, and it promises to spark a revolution in productivity.
Citing rising wages and a tight labor market, Foxconn has added ever more automation to its factories. And faster, more powerful wireless tech will help choreograph the increasingly complex dance between robots and human workers. Of course, assembling an iPhone with robots remains a challenge—human fingers are still superior at manipulating fiddly electronics—but 5G will inch production closer to that goal.
Foxconn Industrial Internet, a spinout of the manufacturing giant, is using 5G to provide a real-time picture of the assembly line. The sensor data from each machine could let, say, Apple engineers in California monitor production of the latest iPhone, allowing them to make tweaks to boost output or fix a defect in minutes instead of days.