Rise of the machines in the dental surgery?

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Endodontic specialist Michael Sultan ponders the rise of automation in the workplace: robotic dentistry

You will have likely heard in the news about the so-called threat of job automation – that is, the idea that many occupations in the UK (some experts believe as many as 15 million ) will be taken over by robots in the near future. While this may seem like the storyline to a Hollywood science fiction film, it is a genuinely accepted fact that our society is heading towards greater automation. Look at driverless cars as an example – and these self-driven cars are by no means the first examples of artificial intelligence being used to replace the work of a human. In our bid to become more productive and efficient, humans have been developing technologies to replace them for hundreds of years. The difference is that now the robots are becoming smarter and better suited for a wider range of jobs.

Indeed, most experts believe that some occupations, such as telemarketers, cashiers and taxi drivers will almost certainly be replaced in the near future by automated machines. This is something of a doubled-edged sword: not only does it represent a step forward in terms of our technological capabilities and will undoubtedly increase our overall productivity, it will also bring with it new challenges in terms of unemployment – after all, what will all those people made redundant by machines do for a living?

As dentists, we might have been observing this news with a touch of scepticism. Our profession, at least, has always been one of those that is less likely to be taken over by machines – and that is unsurprising. Not intending to disparage telemarketers or cashiers, but dentistry intrinsically requires a higher degree of skill and training than either of those jobs – the time we spend in education supports this. It's not just the technical skill that dentistry requires, but the interpersonal qualities, business sense and regulatory observances that make dentistry a job better suited to humans rather than robots.

But we may have cause for alarm. It has recently been reported that, in China, a robot has carried out the very first dental procedure without human intervention. The procedure in question was the placement of two dental implants, which the machine did with a high degree of accuracy. And the prostheses used had been 3D printed using automated CAD/CAM technology – meaning the entire procedure had been completed with minimal human input.

The Chinese dental robot was designed as a potential solution to the lack of fully qualified dentists in China, where demands for dental work far outweigh the number of professionals trained to provide it – and with such promising results from this first test, it is likely that more procedures will be referred to these robotic surgeons.

In the UK, we are seeing a similar problem – there are too few dental professionals to address the growing dental needs of the British public. But is the answer robotics?

Of course, patients want their dental procedures to be carried out with a high degree of accuracy, and they want their treatments to last for a long time – but we know that results are not the be all and end all of dentistry. Can a robot comfort a scared patient the same way we could? Can they detect an anxious patient's body language and adapt their behaviour and manner in response?

At the moment, the answer to these questions is no. Yes, a robot may be able to undertake a dental procedure within the accepted margins of error, and they may be able to complete an implant placement in less time than a human surgeon – but they will not be able to build up the same rapport with the patient, or the trust, that is so vital in dentistry. A crucial part of my job as an endodontist is to understand my patient's frame of mind – could a robot empathise with a patient's pain the same way I can? Certainly not today, and probably not in my life time either.

Ultimately – while automated systems may be able to fulfil very technical functions – that is not what dentistry is solely about. It’s about caring for people, encouraging human to human contact and building trust. Until a robot can manage these things, I think dentists are safe.