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MIT Technology Review

Automated Anesthesiologist Suffers a Painful Defeat

A machine that makes anesthesiologists unnecessary for some medical procedures has failed amid poor sales and resistance from doctors and nurses.

March 29, 2016

In recent years economists and technologists have warned that technology will take over many jobs or parts of jobs that are done today by human workers. But just because a machine can take over a task doesn’t mean that it will catch on. A machine launched last year that makes it unnecessary for an anesthesiologist to attend some medical procedures is being pulled from the market after poor sales.

The Sedasys machine, made by Johnson & Johnson, had already had its wings clipped after opposition from the American Society of Anesthesiologists. The machine can administer the sedative propofol while monitoring vital signs to ensure that a patient is anesthetized to the right degree, meaning only a nurse, not an anesthesiologist, need be present. But the professional group said the idea of a machine replacing human expertise was dangerous.

The group dropped its opposition after Johnson & Johnson agreed to limit the machine’s use to certain procedures, such as colonoscopies.

Robots need not apply.

The Washington Post reported last year that in hospitals using the Sedasys machine, patients were able to leave sooner, and that not needing an anesthesiologist present saved considerable costs. It’s not clear how much impact the history of animosity with some anesthesiologists had on the disappointing sales, but it probably didn’t help.

Johnson & Johnson’s decision comes as it is restructuring its medical devices business. That part of the company is also collaborating with Alphabet subsidiary Verily on medical automation and robotics through a joint venture called Verb Surgical. No products have been detailed yet, but the company’s focus seems to be on technology that assists doctors rather than replaces them—a distinction that might make products easier to bring to market.

(Read more: Washington Post, Wired, “Who Will Own the Robots?”)