Home LearningKnow It AllOur World Innovation in Medical History: From The Clockwork Saw to AI Surgeries

Innovation in Medical History: From The Clockwork Saw to AI Surgeries

by Belinda Breeze

The tools and technologies we’ve deployed are really the first few drops of water in the vast ocean of what AI can do.” – Fei-Fei Li

This week in my school, the students are learning about innovation in history. Particularly medical history. Citizens School, aptly named as it is the citizens of the school that are at the heart of literally every aspect of what happens here. Here, we are not referred to as ‘teachers’ but instead ‘mentors’, and on any and all documents, including job descriptions, this is what we are referred to as. This is taken incredibly seriously. We are here to mentor the students not only through lessons but also through life and to give them every opportunity to succeed. The aim is to future-proof our students for the world that is ahead of them. A world where it is estimated that 80% of the jobs they will have a career in have not even been invented yet. It is on this basis that the decision was made at the school’s inception in August 2022 that it would not follow other curriculums but instead write its own. This curriculum is called the Citizens Future Framework. As part of this curriculum, the students have lessons on entrepreneurship which teaches them about various aspects of starting a business as well as profit and loss. They are taught the difficulties of setting up a business, the pitfalls that can come with it, and also the many great advantages of being self-employed.

Many of the students’ parents are indeed entrepreneurs, so this was of particular interest to them and a large reason for their enrolment here. Students take this class from Year 1 upwards, which is the equivalent of Junior Infants at home in Ireland. We also have a CFF lesson (Citizens Future Framework) which aims to prepare them for all the eventualities of life that are ahead of them after school ends. As part of the curriculum, we have certain tenets that need to be met. The school’s ethos is woven into all subjects. For example, empathy and innovation are two of the main categories that the school insists are instilled across all age levels and subjects, and every Wednesday, we have a whole school assembly that everyone attends. They listen and take part in a presentation on the selected school ethos topic that week. This week, it was innovation. The aim of this is not for the mentors to present, but for the students to lead. This week it was my Year 7 class that was holding the assembly, and we decided to cover the innovation of medical instruments from the 1800s to the present day. Students researched the development of surgical methods and were completely flabbergasted that instruments like the clockwork saw were used by surgeons to amputate infected limbs. They researched and presented a beautiful presentation on Robert Liston, ‘The Fastest Knife in the West-End’, and were delighted to tell the school that he was able to remove someone’s leg with his special knife known as ‘The Liston Knife’ in under 30 seconds. They detailed the innovation in a short period of time, from the brutality of the clockwork saw to the speed of Robert Liston. The audience was astounded to learn that during all of these surgeries, there were no anaesthetic or painkillers! This meant that Liston became a superstar as speed was of the utmost importance, limiting the time taken and reducing pain for the patient.

The next step in innovation came from Joseph Lister. He was the first person to realise germs existed, and he formulated a germ theory. It was because of Lister that surgeons and hospitals began to wash instruments, clean their surgical clothing, and sanitise equipment. This led to a plummeting death toll in hospitals. Surgical deaths and infections dropped to a percentage of what they were previously. He is credited with saving the lives of millions of people, and the famous antiseptic mouthwash Listerine is named in his honour. After Lister came the introduction of proper sanitisation in hospitals and updated clothing, equipment, and professional care. Before Lister, operations were done in the homes of the patients. It was even seen as a luxury to have a surgeon operate in your kitchen or living room, as it was expensive and therefore only the very wealthy could afford it. It was a measure of your wealth and what social class you belonged to. Operations were done in garages, sheds, and barns. There are medical reports of rats and maggots being swept away and removed from buildings prior to surgery. We have Lister to thank for the sanitised conditions in our hospitals in 2023.

In 2023, the year of artificial intelligence and the powerhouse that ChatGPT has become, it was inevitable that AI would become integrated into surgery. The power of the human mind, coupled with modern technology, has the potential to shape healthcare as we know it. The integration of AI in surgery is advancing surgical and procedural medicine to tremendous levels of sophistication. Artificial intelligence can be broadly defined as “the study of algorithms that enable machines to reason and perform cognitive functions including problem-solving, object and word recognition and decision-making.” Functions like problem-solving, object and word recognition, and decision-making are all integral parts of the surgical process. By training machines to perform these functions, surgical procedures can aid and advance the skills of human surgeons.

Elon Musk is most famous for creating the electric car company, Tesla, and he has another company called ‘Neuralink’, which is a neurotechnology company that’s building an implantable, brain-computer interface capable of translating thought into action. It hopes to solve paralysis in patients by translating their thoughts into moving limbs with the help of the surgically inserted chip. The operation to implant the chip into the brain is so complex and fine that it needs to be done by a robot. The threads of the Neuralink implant are so fine that they can’t be inserted by the human hand. The robot has been designed to reliably and efficiently insert these threads exactly where they need to be.

AI and virtual surgery make it possible for the best surgeons in the world to operate on people in different nations without leaving their home countries. For example, in America, the best heart surgeons in the world can log into a system and operate on a patient in Ireland through the medium of robotic arms, controlled by the surgeon in the States and acted out in real-time in Ireland. An incredible innovation. In the span of 200 years, the advancement from the clockwork saw to AI surgeries has been truly amazing. The next 200 years of innovation in the medical industry are almost impossible to comprehend. Anything is possible. AI has already taken over education, and just last week, Citizens School purchased the educational-friendly version of ChatGPT called ‘School Hack’. This is a revolutionary app and website that allows students to research and submit work through the platform. The platform helps them to answer questions and also vets the work that they have submitted to see if the work they have written and submitted is original or if it is plagiarised. Similar to the ‘Turnitin’ system used in universities all over the world. In UCC, ‘Turnitin’ would allow you to submit your assignment and then give you and the lecturer a percentage of how much of the work was original. This mitigated cheating and simply copying pages of work from the internet. School Hack does something similar, and it also safeguards students by not allowing any ‘Haram’ questions, and in turn, the students cannot receive any inappropriate answers. The whole school staff is encouraged to use it to plan lessons and prepare for classes, which cuts down on work and creates a better work-life balance. This is the very beginning of AI in education, and it is exciting to see the possibilities of this technology and the potential it has to reinvent education.