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May 27, 2008

Calling Doctor Cray

Michael Feldman

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) has a great story this week about using supercomputers to perform prostate surgery. My prostate happens to be my third favorite organ and I’m not all that comfortable with a human being fiddling with it — especially one with a knife in their hand. So this recent development is welcome news to me.

The technology is just in the early experimental stage, but it looks promising. Last month, the Lonestar supercomputer in Austin performed laser surgery on a dog in Houston without the intervention of a human surgeon. The procedure was developed by computational experts from UT-Austin, cyberinfrastructure specialists and systems from TACC, and technologists from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

According to the article, the first attempt “went off without a hitch.” The cyber-surgery used Lonestar’s computational muscle to drive the procedure, using precise lasers, state-of-the-art thermal imaging technology, and computational methods that synthesize complex information in a fraction of a second.

“We’re basically bringing engineering tools into medicine,” said J. Tinsley Oden, director of UT-Austin’s Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and principal investigator of the project. “We’re making surgery an engineering or mathematical process.”

Although Oden thinks the technology is five to ten years away for application on humans, the implications for future medical treatment are staggering. Since the procedure can be controlled remotely, it could make state-of-the-art surgical treatments available on a global scale — talk about your Doctors Without Borders (although presumably you’d still have to worry about speed-of-light latency issues over long distances). One goal of the experiment was to demonstrate a more precise, minimally invasive version of laser surgery, so supercomputer-driven treatments would theoretically be safer and perhaps more effective than those performed by a mere mortal.

And less expensive. Considering the cost of computing infrastructure keeps dropping, expensive surgerical procedures may end up succumbing to the inexorable downward price pressure of Moore’s Law. That would certainly shake things up in the health care industry.

Before you give your surgeon the boot though, it’s worth noting that, according to the TACC article, the dog gave his life to the research project. Hmm, it might have been better PR if Fido had lived to tell the tale.