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An Unusual FTSE Boss

adam-and-paul-iv

Interviewing Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever

(I think my questions are sticking out of my back pocket)

Paul Polman is an unusual man for at least two big reasons. Most obviously, he is unusual because he is Chief Executive of one of the world’s biggest consumer brand companies, Unilever. But in many decades of interviewing senior executives he also strikes me as very unusual because of his willingness to engage in subjects of global concern such as environmental threats.

Much of the time of a CEO is spent trying to keep the support of major shareholders. Polman has been CEO for longer than most and it’s interesting therefore to know that in his early days running the company, rather than trying to keep shareholders on board, he spent much time trying to get rid of them. Many shareholders want short term returns, he told me. What he wanted was owners who were willing to look to the long term and so he tried to change the ownership of the company to those who would support those long term aims.

Polman appears to be a boss genuinely concerned about the environment and believes that companies can play a constructive role in helping improve it.  To that end he is tackling the problem of waste head on. Unilever says all of its factories now have zero waste – 600 factories globally recycling materials to create no waste at all, they say.

That’s quite a claim and something many believe is a model which others could follow,

The world produces nearly four million tonnes of municipal waste every day. If this trend continues, the daily amount is set to more than double by 2050.

CLEANER WORLD

GLOBAL WASTE GENERATION

2010                2020                2030                2040                2050

3.8                   4.1                   6.7                   6.9                   8.5

Unit: Million tonnes per day
Source: Hoornweg, Bhada-Tata & Kennedy, World Bank

 

2060                2070                2080                2090                2100

9.3                   10.2                 10.5                 11.0                 11.6

Source: Peak Waste: When Is It Likely to Occur?
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/jiec.12165/

Looking over the river Thames on the roof of Unilever’s headquarters, Polman explained his corporate philosophy to me:

“Our role here is to look after the globe for future generations. Whilst we’ve been incredibly successful lifting enormous amounts of people out of poverty, unfortunately we’ve done it in a way that has resulted in quite a lot of over-consumption, acidification of oceans, plastic in oceans, air pollution, water pollution and frankly, leaving too many people behind.”

I asked him whether he felt it was too much to describe the environmental challenges we face as a crisis?

“No it’s not too much. Only 5% of packaging gets reused. So what we’ve now discovered because of population growth, this enormous level of consumption that has happened is that we need to move to a more circular model, where someone’s waste is someone else’s input.”

So just how is Unilever creating zero waste factories? One of its success stories involves a popular British food – Marmite. This savoury yeast spread is itself a by-product of the brewing industry – And now workers in Burton on Trent have come up with a use for the by-product of the marmite-making process.   They’re turning the sludge left in machines – which would previously have been washed away or been sent into landfill – into biogas.

That’s just one example of a different approach to manufacturing. I put it to Polman that this was rare. Indeed, perhaps it was an approach that other bosses shouldn’t take. After all their job is to make money for their shareholders who are trying to get a return for pensioners and their investors who need the company to make money rather than make an environmental statement.

He disagrees. He tells me that companies are corporate citizens who have a responsibility to lead change. But in leading change they don’t have to stop making money, indeed it’s just a new even more efficient way of creating sustainable profit.

He tells me “You have to believe in the goodness of people, which I sincerely do. You need to educate CEOs themselves to be able to verbalise to the financial community why it is important to invest for the longer term.”

One of the big challenges facing the world is sanitation, or the lack of sanitation. I asked Polman what companies like his do to help that?

“Yeah, it’s a tremendous opportunity actually” he says. “Despite the tragedy that 2.3 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water or sanitation. We have set a goal to actually reach 1 billion people in the world with handwashing. The simple act of handwashing can cut infectious diseases like pneumonia, diarrhoea, by 75%. Currently we see every year 650,000 children die unnecessarily of these infectious diseases.

There’s over a billion people that don’t have access to sanitation in the sense of open defecation. Since our bleach cleaner Domestos is single-mindedly focused on building toilets, the brand is growing double digit.”

I asked him whether he felt such acts were part of the company’s charitable works – and he interrupts me before I’ve even finished the question.

“No, it’s not a charitable act for us. It’s an integral part. The more people have toilets, the better it is for Domestos. The more people wash hands, the better you sell your bar soaps.”

There are many in the world who try to make it better. There are many in the world who try to build companies, offer employment and improve economies. Paul Polman is a man who believes you can do both. Almost his final words, before we shook hands and left were these:

“We find out that every brand that has a strong social mission, because ultimately brands should be there to address issues in society, otherwise why should we accept them to be there? But the brands that have the stronger social mission grow at twice the rate of brands that don’t, and are actually more profitable as well. It makes good business sense.”

 

The interview and report on how to create a cleaner planet can be seen (only outside of the UK I’m afraid)  on BBC World News. For regular updates and behind the scenes pictures of our filming trips – follow @AdamShawBiz

 

 

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A Slice of The Sun

Energy – limitless, abundant and clean. That is the goal of scientists trying to create new energy sources.

Nuclear power has for a long time been the centre of much controversy. Although it doesn’t create the pollution associated with fossil fuels, it does leave us with an almost unimaginable period of radioactive waste, Radioactive isotopes eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.[1]

So whilst nuclear power might provide a short term fix to pollution problems it can also create other problems which might last longer than modern man has existed. That’s why so many people are so worried about it.

But a tantalising possibility has been raised by nuclear scientists to create a form of nuclear power that provides almost limitless power with few side effects. This nuclear power is based on fusion. Traditional nuclear power stations are based on fission. The difference may sound little more than the replacement of a few vowels – but that is very misleading.

Fusion nuclear power is a world away from the fission power we know today and it involves creating a bit of the sun right here on earth.

The race is now on to design a fusion reactor. In France, they’re building one of the largest machines the world has ever seen. .

Burn one kilo of fusion fuel, it will generate the same amount of energy as ten million kilos of fossil fuel.

The problem is that nuclear fusion has for years been held up as a possible solution to our energy problem. It has always been the next big thing, but it’s never been the thing. However, there now does appear to be a critical mass of scientists, a new generation of brains determined to crack the problem.

So here is how it works. At the moment all of our nuclear reactors rely on nuclear fission. This process relies on the ability to split atoms to produce lots of power, but also, lots of radioactive waste.

A fusion reactor will join atoms together. It’s likely to be Hydrogen to form helium, like our sun. Any radioactive waste, they say will be relatively short-lived.

And the fuel? Well hydrogen is found readily in water, abundant the world over.

The proponents of fusion power have for years been promising us a plentiful and relatively safe form of new energy – well here at ITER in France they are starting to make good on that promise.

Over 200 experimental reactors have been built worldwide. But to date they’ve all consumed more energy than they produce. In other words they can make fusion happen but it takes so much energy to make it happen, that its pointless. You put in more energy than you get out.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, hopes to turn this situation around.

It is an enormous project. It’s going to cost at least 15 billion euros. It involves 35 nations and when it’s done they say it will be the largest experiment ever conducted by man.

It will be a 23-thousand tonne nuclear laboratory. Three times heavier than the Eiffel Tower.

The man heading up this remarkable scientific test bed is Bernard Bigot, ITER’s director general.

I asked him on the grand scheme of human innovation and science, how significant he thought this project was? His answer was unequivocal. “It is one of the most striking change in the history of technologies.”

That’s quite a claim. He and the other supporters of this project believe it could transform the world’s relationship with energy. He believes it will happen within the next 40 – 60 years. It’s not quick but science that might change the world never is.

The journey to a new energy source – is our Horizons programme this week. Do watch it and tell me what you think on Twitter at @adamshawbiz

 

[1] http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/radwaste.html

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A Hug and A Shot

We experience the world through our senses. Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.  A problem with any one of them and you need help – a pair of glasses for instance. Or even a hearing aid. Well, we’re about to enter a new world of sense technology aided by Virtual Reality.IMG_0950.jpg

The sense of touch doesn’t really get the attention that the other senses get like sight and sound and yet it’s incredibly sophisticated. It enables us to tell between wet and dry, hard and soft, it gives us pleasure and pain – so could we create a second skin which creates sensations through electrical impulses? Well I’m about to find out.

I’ve arranged to meet the people behind a Tesla Suit. It looks like a wet suit but enables users to interact with the virtual environment and actually “feel” what’s going on inside a computer. It’s been designed by a group from Belarus who are now based in the UK.

The Tesla Suit uses something called haptic feedback – which is the mechanical stimulation to recreate the sense of touch and mimic sensations we experience in the real world so that we can feel them in the virtual world. At present the technology is, in the main, being advanced by the gaming industry, but there are potentially other far-reaching applications.

Before we started filming, there was much talk of my chest measurements and arm lengths so the team could ensure the suit fitted. I was under the impression there might be a range of them for me to try. As it turned out – there was only one. It was so tight it took three men to push me into it and do it up. Amazingly, once inside, I was so held together by the rubber – it did make me look rather buff – definitely worth the pain of forcing myself into it.

Dimitree Marozau is one of the founders of the Tesla Studios. He says it’s taken three years to create the suit and he let me put it through its paces.

I put on some virtual reality glasses and started a shooting video game. The different was that when my character in the game was shot, I actually felt a pain in my real body – delivered by the suit I was wearing.

It works – you don’t like being shot in the virtual world – because it delivers real pain in the real world.

But it’s not just for gamers. Dimnitri says it could deliver a virtual hug to you from your family – if you are abroad. He demonstrated by hugging the empty space in front of me – saying I would now feel a real hug through my suit.

In reality I just felt lots of small electric shocks. It wasn’t like any hug I’ve ever had. But the fact that it works at all is a small miracle.

The company says that the technology is just opening up a range of possibilities.  Dimitri says “Our vision was to send it over to space, because muscular atrophy is the biggest problem in space because people are not working out as much or they have to forcefully work out. Electrical signals conveyed by the smart fabric could be used to make the muscles of astronauts contract, compensating for the lack of gravity, and giving them a work out.”

There is research going on at the moment with people who have strokes. The recovery process involves electrical stimulation in certain parts to help the muscles to regain their memory, how they work, and to stimulate different parts of the body. And probably this one could take it to a next level.

This sensory technology may have started in the world of gaming but it’s already slowly moving into the world of medicine. Now that kind of science really does have the possibility to change the world and our experience of it.

 

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Me – The Great American Quarterback

 

IMG_0866Adam Shaw – the new High School Quarterback in Training.                                                                     Who said shoulder pads had gone out of fashion.

At school I played in the rugby team. But at my school you only played rugby if you were rubbish at football. We were so bad – at one point my captain got so confused he ran the wrong way down the pitch. I saw him run past me and delicately put the ball down across our own line, thus scoring points for the other side. This may have been the first time in the history of rugby that such a feat has been achieved. In fact it wasn’t a feat so much as an anti-feat.

I tell you this only to explain that I am not used to the triumphs and kudos that come from sporting achievements or the all-round adoration that attaches to the macho stars of sports.

However rather later in life than it comes to most, in this programme I was to become the quarter back star of an all-American football team.

I was there to test a new safety device which is supposed to reduce head injuries. It comes in the unlikely and rather underwhelming format of a sticker.

The lab behind the invention is based at the Simon Fraser University  Mechatronics Department – which is mechanical and electrical engineering combined.  Daniel Abram has been busy carrying out research to see if it’s possible to reduce injury to that fragile organ, the brain, which is made up of multi-billion neurons.

Adam and Daniel Abram, CEO BrainshieldDaniel Abram – leading the team to invent a sticker to help protect against brain injuries

I have to say when I was told we were visiting the lab – to see a company that has invented a sticker that you put onto a helmet that improves its safety, I was very, very sceptical that it would work.

Daniel told me there’s no magic to his team’s invention which is called the Brainshield sticker. It is all, he says, based on science.

To test the device, we put an American football helmet in a clamp and dropped a heavy block on it to see what happened. It was imitating the effect that a far too cool American teenager might have on my when he jumped on me to wrest a football from my hands.

In the lab under test conditions, we could see what happened with the impact on a dummy head inside a helmet without the Brainshield sticker. The head itself rotated causing potential damage to the brain. However once we put an ordinary sticker on the helmet and repeated the experiment, much to my surprise there was a lot less rotation of the dummy head. That reduced the sharp twisting to the brain that leads to injury.  The spread of force also means there’s also much less compression to the brain.

The sticker is made of microengineered layers. The layers are stacked on each other. And once it receives an impact, the layers move across each other. And by moving, the sticker doesn’t allow the phenomenon that causes that sharp twisting of the brain. Lots of layers within the sticker all shear apart absorbing the twisting motion –so the sticker takes the pain and your brain doesn’t. At least that’s the claim.

There are currently no independent research results for Brainshield, but they’re on the way.

So having tested it in the lab, in the spirit of Horizons, my producer thought it would be a wonderful idea for me to put the sticker to the test on the field. We headed to Handsworth High and their head coach Jay Prepchuk – who was about to put me through my paces as the teams newest yet oldest Quarterback.

He helped me into my kit and then much to my surprise – he started hitting me around the head  with the words ” This last test is just to kinda smack you. How does that feel?”

“Well, you’re hitting me in the head! Stop doing that, it’ll be fine!” I replied in what I hoped was a suitable sense of British reserve.

Adam and Jay Prepchuk, Football Coach

Coach Jay Prepchuk and his new Quarterback for the Wandsworth School team

Jay says the stickers have helped reduce the number of head injuries the team has had. That itself is not enough to prove the value of them – but the evidence we saw was certainly intriguing and looked like it would help.

One thing is for sure, the stickers might save your brain, they don’t make a middle aged Englishman a great American footballer.

 

 

 

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Abundant World?

Voila_Capture 2016-05-13_11-23-21_am

As the world’s population grows and gets richer, so is demand on the world’s resources. If we’re going to supply enough food, clean water and energy for millions more people, we are going to have to re-think a lot of our approaches to industry and technology.

So I’ve come to a place where they are trying to re-imagine the world. It is the Singularity University based at the NASA Ames campus in California. I’ve come to meet Peter Diamandis who along with Ray Kurzweil founded the University which aims to help people think differently about the world and how it can be shaped by a new era of technology.

Peter and Ray have a long list of honours and achievements. Ray is Director of Engineering at Google but he also invented the world’s first CCD Flat Bed Scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano. Peter Diamandis is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the X Prize. The prize was created to run a $10 million competition to create private passenger-carrying space craft. It’s now a foundation with many prizes to encourage technological innovation in lots of different fields.

The Singularity university is the focus of some serious attention by some very serious minded organisation and is supported by Google and Cisco amongst others.

We set up filming in one of the University Labs next door to a lecture theatre in which Peter Diamandis was presenting to a group of business leaders. He is a man in demand. He ran in for our interview between a number of meetings and whilst we took some publicity shots, he was also continuing a meeting with someone who had followed him from the lecture.

Peter is a man who likes to paint big and bold pictures of the future. His best-selling book called ‘Abundance-The Future Is Better Than You Think’ encourages its readers to think differently about the world – to think of it as a world of plenty. He believes technology is taking what used to be scarce and is making it abundant. His Book called ‘Bold’ drawers parallels between the modern world and the one which saw the end of the dinosaurs. Just as an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs that ruled the Earth and made way for small furry mammals, a new wave of planetary disruptions is about to occur., he says. This new asteroid is called “exponential technology.” Peter’s view is that this tech astroid is going to wipe out industries in a similar manner to the rock which fell on Earth during the Cretaceous Period. It will create a new era of opportunity and abundance.

Such optimistic visions of the future make me sceptical. In a world where millions suffer from basic shortages and regular crisis, his is certainly a revolutionary notion but it’s one he is convinced of.

Take knowledge for example, Peter says “The President of the US 20 years ago and a kid on the streets of Mumbai with a smart phone today – have access to the same level of knowledge and expertise.” Technology, he believes, has made knowledge abundant. It has democratised information.

But it’s not just Google searches which are now available to everyone. Peter also says “We used to think of energy as being scarce. But technology is driving new revolutions. Solar cells are becoming ubiquitous. Oil used to be available in just a few places but now technology is allowing us to go 5,000 feet below the ocean surface to find more and more.”

Peter is certainly an engaging character. He speaks with enthusiasm and commitment and he is taken seriously by a large number of people and businesses.

But the notion of us all living in an abundant world still jars with what I see on my travels. In many ways I think his view is a First World view of problems. Millions of people in the developing world don’t experience abundance at all. They are time poor, money poor, energy poor and food poor. The abundant world Peter describes is not the experience of their lives.

I put those concerns to Peter but he believes things are changing. He says in Africa a billion people will soon have access to cell phones which gives them access to the world’s knowledge. Yes in comparison to the rest of the world they are still poor, but the world is being transformed by these devices, he says and that change is coming to the poor as well as the rich,

He believes that technology is changing the nature of the world to “create abundance at scale”. The number of people solving problems is exploding and the tools they have to help solve these problems – is also exploding.

On our travels around the world for this series of Horizons, we have certainly seen an explosion of ideas aimed at tackling the world’s biggest problems. Whilst many of these ideas are coming from the globe’s biggest corporations, big business doesn’t have a monopoly on innovation. Many of the most interesting ideas come from unusual and unheard of businesses,

Petra Wadstron is the CEO of a company called Solvatten which my colleague on Horizons – Alex Forrest visited in Sweden. Petra and her company are trying to solve the problem of unclean and dangerous water supplies which blight the lives of millions in the poorer parts of the world.

She has invented a water carrier that sits in the sun and absorbs light to power a filtration process that can take dirty river water and turn it into something safe to drink. The solar powered system breaks down the cell membrane around potentially dangerous micro-organisms. The UV destroys the bindings in the DNA and makes the water safe from bacteria, virus and parasites. It also creates hot water of up to 75 degrees – meaning it can provide warm showers and baths to those who have no powered heating water systems. Her Solvatten system is already being used by 40,000 families with hopes it could expand to millions more.

The system costs around $100 a unit but it lasts for up to 10 years. One of its users is Nancy Wamaitha Njuguna. She spoke to us on the bank of a river in Kenya where she scoops up water for her family. The system, she says, is changing her life. She used to go for firewood several times a week to heat up her water. She also used to have to pay out of a very limited wage for typhoid treatment for her family- something she no longer has to do.

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Petra points to examples like those of Nancy and her family and says this is not just about a technology solving a practical problem, it’s about energy and dignity.

In this first programme of the series another colleague of mine on Horizons  -Sharanjit Leyl, saw how in Singapore technology is coming to the rescue of food scarcity. Due to a shortage of land in this city state, almost all of its fresh vegetable has to be imported. Only 7% of fresh vegetables is grown there. The city state wants to improve its food sustainability by producing more locally.

Jack Ng has taken farming to new heights by creating Sky Green. It’s a farm in a building in which tiers of food are in motion to the top of the building and down again – regulating the light they get. It produces 1 tonne of vegetables a day. It’s part of a worldwide investigation we have seen in many countries to try to re-imagine the world of farming – making it more efficient, more sustainable and producing food closer to the markets and people that consume the product.

There are certainly examples of the kind of innovation that Peter Diamandis thinks will change the world. Some of the ideas you will see in this series of Horizons have taken billions of dollars to create and have involved the support of some of the world’s biggest companies and countries. Some have been created by individuals with few resources other than a big idea, optimism and drive.

We are living in an age of innovation where technology is driving change at an unprecedented pace. However millions do not live in a world of abundance. Millions risk their lives travelling away from disasters, uncertainty, insecurity and shortages to find a life where these things do not exist. But Peter Diamandis says: “When I think about creating abundance, it’s not about creating a life of luxury for everybody on this planet; it’s about creating a life of possibility.”

Investigating the world of possibilities is certainly what Horizons is all about. I hope you enjoy the series.

You can follow our exploits at @adamshawbiz and @horizonsbiz

 

 

 

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The Underground Food Movement

 

I am standing on a busy corner in South London. Cars are hooting at each other, people’s heads are down as they walk quickly to an office or home and barely anyone notices a padlocked gate to an off round building set slightly back from the road.

But it is here that a revolution in farming is starting that could help bring agriculture from the leafy countryside right into the heart of our noisy cities.

There is no obvious bell to ring – so I shout and a friendly face pops out from a Portacabin. The face belongs to Steven Dring, who together with Richard Ballard has built a farm 33 metres below street level in the dark and damp tunnels of an old municipal bomb shelter. Their company is called Growing Underground.

We pull open the metal doors to the stairwell and take the long walk down the spiral staircase. It looks like a disused railway station but Steve tells us it was a shelter for VIPs during the war. The locals got annoyed that they couldn’t use it and persuaded the authorities to open it to everyone. However it took so long to build, no one is sure that it was ever actually used.

At the end of one of the tunnels they have constructed a tent in which they can control the lighting, hearing and circulating water supply. To the background sound of the rumbling tube trains which seem to be all around us, they are growing salads for use by restaurants. One of their backers and customers is Michelle Roux Junior – the Michelin starred chef and owner of the restaurant La Gavroche – which sits the other, distinctly more upmarket, part of town.

We have lots of filming to do, Steve says there is a phone linked by cable to the surface, so we can call him if we need to find our way out. With that, he leaves us to our own devices whilst he heads top-side to sell more salad.

We wondered around with the square LED battery light we use for filming and occasionally turn it on under me face to add to the ghoulish feel of the place. It wasn’t long before we got lost. Every tunnel looked the same. Endless damp tubes seemingly leading to no-where.

Getting lost was funny then it was worrying. I can get lost when I’m in central London and can jump on a bus to get me home – so down here with no obvious way out – it was clear I should never have gone far from the phone connection to the surface.

The crew were more confident of finding our way back and did eventually get us back to the tunnel being used to grow salad. I picked up the phone to say we could do with a guide to find our way back to the exit stairs – only to find that wasn’t working.
Well at least we wouldn’t starve. We had a tunnel full of salad to keep us going until someone noticed we were missing.

This underground farm is a curious world within a world. A world of opposites – dark, damp and un-light brick tunnels hosting a brightly light tent, smelling of fresh herbs and the sound of filtered water being pumped round.

But this underground farm isn’t meant to be just a novelty. Food miles accounts for a huge amount of wasted energy in the food industry. Transporting food from farm to fork involves a lot of transportation, packaging, pollution and waste. Bringing food production nearer to where it is consumed can help dramatically cut the waste and pollution.

The company I’m visiting, claims its food can be picked and in a kitchen within 4 hours of being picked and packed. By using the latest hydroponic systems and LED technology, their crops can be grown year-round in the perfect, pesticide-free environment.

Because it has total control over their environment, they can create a consistency that helps quality control.

Their hydroponics system, they say, uses 70% less water than traditional open-field farming, and because all the nutrients are kept within the closed-loop system they say they run no risk of contributing to agricultural run-off.

Bringing food production closer to the market is serves is an appealing notion. Whether it can be a significant contribution to world agriculture, is another matter. But who knows, maybe one day the cities will be home to hundred of underground farms where city inhabitants need only reach below their feet to pluck a carrot and a nice sprig of rosemary.

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The Rise of The Robot Surgeon

The robot Surgeon is a phrase, which conjures up a clinical foreign future. But it’s wrong to think of it like that for a couple of reason.

Firstly it’s not really the future; it’s already with us. Secondly, the surgeon is no more robotic than they are now – but the tools they are using are becoming more advanced and robotic-like.

To understand the future of surgery I went to a low-rise building just off one of the main roads in Sunnyvale California. The town is home to the headquarters of Yahoo and sits in the centre of the high-tech Silicon Valley. That’s no coincidence – this is a technology company as much as it is a medical one.

Globally the market for medical robots and devices is growing. It’s already worth more than five billion dollars – and is set to be worth nearly 14 billion dollars by 2018. [1]

The company I was visiting creates a robotic surgery technology called the Da Vinci system.

Da Vinci robots operate in hospitals worldwide, with an estimated 200,000 surgeries conducted in 2012, most commonly for hysterectomies and prostrate removals.[2]

However the Da Vinci robot is thought to cost around $2 million- so while the technology is around – it’s not around much as cost prohibits its widespread use.[3] At least the Da Vinci machines cost a lot less than many of the real Da Vinci paintings.

The Da Vinci robots look a little like the robots that build many cars. Articulated arms swivel from a central joint. However there is no welding going on here, it’s a much more precise kind of operation.

To see how precise, I was allowed into their training facility to become surgeon for the day.

No patients were harmed in the making of this film and so I was operating on a tiny display of rubber bands and rubberised sticks. They were only a few centimetres high and my job was to pick up the tiny rubber band and hook it over the tiny stick.

The surgeon, or me, sits across the room from the patient and looks through a video panel at a display, which is magnified many times. I controlled the robotic arms via a few joysticks and foot pedals which allowed me to turned my large imprecise hand movements into very controlled small movements around the rubber bands.

It takes about half an hour to get the basic feel for it – and by then I was getting so confident I felt I could really have a go at a patient. There were no volunteers amongst the crew though so I stuck with the rubber bands.

Technology likes this of course enables surgeons to conduct very precise surgery. But it seems to me the full advantages haven’t quite been reached.

I was sitting just a few feet away from the operating table – but there is no real reason why I couldn’t have been sitting at home controlling the operation thousands of miles away in California.

If that happens, it would open a future in which patients around the world could benefit from surgical skills, not of robots but of human surgeons in different countries, delivered to them by robotic arms but very much dependent on a human surgeon’s skill. That, I think is the real future of the robotic surgeon and his very human skills.

 

[1] http://www.transparencymarketresearch.com/medical-robotic-systems.html

[2] Babbage Science and technology (18 January 2012). “Surgical robots: The kindness of strangers”. The Economist. Retrieved 21 February 2013.

[3] “The Slow Rise of the Robot Surgeon”. MIT Technology Review. 24 March 2010. Retrieved 23 March 2013.

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