"You don't ask a (human) assistant to get this out of the way so I can do what I have to do. You don't grab your assistant's hand and manipulate it," he added. "The assistant does it on his or her own. We want the robot to function like an assistant."
The researchers are using computer programs and actual surgical demonstrations to teach the robots how to do it.
"We have the surgeon do the suturing and tie the knot several times, and the robot looks at the examples and learns how the surgeon is doing it—then does it faster and better than the surgeon," Cavusoglu said. "A computer program in the robot enables the robot to watch the surgeon, and learn from the surgeon's example."
The scientists also are programming the robots to manipulate soft tissue, and handle delicate organs. "Rather than learning by observing, this we do by programming," he said.
The two approaches complement each other. "Some things are easier learned by observation, some things easier by programming," Cavusoglu said. "Eventually, we want to combine them so we can do even more complicated things."