In the Guiding Grips of a Robotic Surgical Assistant

In November I will be presenting research from my dissertation at SLSA 2019. Accepted abstract:

The most ubiquitous robotic assistant (SRA) on the market, the da Vinci Surgical System directly modifies what it means for the hands to act as healing agents, not only by removing them from direct contact with the patient but also by anesthetizing the felt epistemologies of operating on a patient. With the heat, resistance, and tackiness of the patient’s body removed, what remains for the surgeon to touch are the control side grips of a slave robot. Grips which glide easily, control for tremors, provide haptic feedback about the position of robotic arms, but give little indication of the body being manipulated.

Surgical robotic assistants created for human-robot interaction (HRI) constitute an important focal point for understanding the co-construction of touch and technology. The development of SRAs shapes ideas and practices of human and machine touch in medical settings. The values and meanings associated with these systems orient around their haptic materiality, shifting touch practices, and the associations of touch that arise with their development, use, and reception. In this paper I interrogate the many ways touch is actively co-constructed with the da Vinci by drawing on data from interviews and observations with robotic surgeons, and documents and interviews from da Vinci engineers.

The most profound impacts on notions of surgical touch are shaped through the guiding grips of the robotic surgical assistant but it is the more mundane practices of touch associated with the device that reveal the scope of its influence. The alteration of surgical touch through the grips and the mundane shifts in touch practices around the robot co-construct surgical touch in affective ways as both controlling and caring, not through the healing hands of the surgeon, but through the guiding grips of a robotic surgical assistant.