Economists and scientists say robots will be taking orders at drive-thru restaurants soon.
Robots may even be changing the oil in cars or rotating tires.
But will robots clean teeth, perform a root canal, or fill a cavity?
Americans say: “Not so fast.”
As eager as many sectors are to embrace artificial intelligence and robots, dental patients are only lukewarm to the idea of an autonomous machine operating within the tight confines of their mouths.
In an online survey of more than 500 people, researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida asked people how they felt about the idea of robotic dentists.
Respondents were given 10 common dental procedures — teeth cleaning, applying a cap, tooth extraction, bonding, root canal, gum surgery, teeth whitening, applying braces, applying sealant, and putting in a filling — and asked to indicate their willingness to let a robot perform them instead of a person.
Participants more freely gave the thumbs up to procedures that were considered lighter or less invasive, such as a dental cleaning or whitening.
More invasive procedures, such as root canals, gum surgery, and a dental filling, were considered too intricate for many to accept a robot’s care.
“The most common comment was that people feel that robots are not sophisticated enough yet to do the more invasive procedures,” Stephen Rice, PhD, associate professor of human factors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the study’s organizing author, told Healthline. “In their minds, robots are very simple right now, so they should stick to simple procedures.”
One factor that did persuade a change of opinion was price.
When asked if they’d consider dental care from a robot if the cost was half that of a human provider, respondents were more likely to agree to it.
In fact, 32 percent of the survey’s participants were opposed to teeth cleaning or whitening by a robot at full price, but 83 percent said they’d be willing if offered a 50 percent discount.
The research was presented this week at the 2018 International Symposium on Human Factors and Ergonomics in Healthcare (HFEH) in Boston, Massachusetts.
It’s meant to give feedback and ideas to robotics engineers and designers for future development.
“Robotics companies need to take into consideration the opinions and attitudes of their consumers,” Rice said. “I think the companies also need to be patient while consumers learn about these procedures. It takes time for the public to come around to new tech, especially tech that involves medical procedures without human intervention.”
Dentists who Healthline talked to, however, greet this survey’s findings with a hefty dose of skepticism.
Will robots replace dentists?
Robots are nothing new in medicine, says Dr. Katia Friedman, DDS, of the Friedman Dental Group in Florida.
Friedman says despite the popular use, she won’t be hiring one to clean teeth any time soon, but she may have other uses.
“Robots have been around for decades in the medical field and have not yet replaced doctors,” Friedman told Healthline. “However, robots can be an excellent tool to improve precision of certain procedures, such as dental fillings, crowns, bridges, dental implants, and more.”
Dr. Anjali Rajpal, DMD, a dentist at Beverly Hills Dental Arts, says many dentist’s offices are already using some forms of robotics.
“We use robotics for digital impressions, digital milling, digital laser measurements,” she told Healthline. “So many things have moved toward digital care, so in a way, we already have robots in the office. With the milling machine, for example, it’s milling for you. You’re just designing it through a computer. That was done by hand before.”
However, Rajpal said even this example requires the intervention and work of a human.
“For aesthetics cases, when you need really nice staining and shading, it’s still better in the hands of a lab technician,” she said. “In the end, it’s still usually better to have an aesthetic eye, an artistic eye looking at something instead of just a robot.”
The survey respondents told Rice they feared a robot might not be able to pick up on cues of discomfort and pain.
Dr. Edward A. Alvarez, DDS, a dentist in New York City, says that can be taught to a robot, but it’s still no replacement for the compassion of human interaction.
“Those robots, machines, or computers can be programmed to recognize signs of pain and stress, such as elevated blood pressure, increased respiration, dilation of the pupils, and more,” he told Healthline. “At the end of the day, there is also human empathy and recognition of ‘seeing it in someone’s face’ that a machine cannot.”
“Judging from the sensitive nature of a mouth and a patient — they’re not anesthetized; they’re fully awake — they can be fearful, and you know the general stereotype is that patients fear the dentist because they’re in a very vulnerable position. It’s a position where they have to fully trust the dentist and just kind of be in their hands,” she said. “You need an ability to relate to the patient and to put them at ease before you even work on them.”
When will dentist robots be available?
Dentists and medical tech companies are several years away from a fully autonomous dental robot, but they’re growing closer by the day.
Neocis, a company based in Florida, announced last year they had approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market a first-of-its-kind robotically-assisted dental surgical system called Yomi.
“The system assists the surgeon in controlling the direction of the drill to assure that the doctor is guided to follow the correct location, depth, and orientation of the plan, while still controlling the actual drill delivery,” Friedman said.
In China last year, a robot dentist replaced a dental implant for the first time. A human programmed the precise measurements in order to insure the implants fit correctly, but the robot did the work. According to the Chinese, the procedure went smoothly and was a success.
For his part, Rice says dentists aren’t going anywhere, despite his study’s finding that people may be more willing to accept noninvasive robotic dental treatment.
“I don’t see human dentists going out of business anytime soon,” Rice said. “People like having real doctors and dentists, just like they like having a real pilot in the cockpit.”