Smart Probe. Methodist DeBakey Cardiovascular Journal: July 2013, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 178.
The NASA Smart Probe, ? which actually “learns”
from experience, ? originated at
a 1992 ? meeting convened
“to discuss the common ? challenges between
neurosurgery and ? soil analysis.”
Researchers realized ? that both fields were seeking
“improved accuracy ? for probe placement,”
and that both would benefit ? from a probe
that not only extracted ? target matter
but also could convey ? information.
Equipped with an array ? of multimodal
sensors, the surgical ? Smart Probe registers
environmental features ? such as pH,
partial oxygen pressure, ? tissue stiffness,
electrical activity ? and blood flow.
The heart ? of the probe is a 6000-pixels
fiber optic camera. ? The chemical
composition of the tissue can ? be read
in the reflected light; ? the different
waveforms correspond ? to different tissue types.
“Originally trained ? on tofu
because of its ? similar consistency
to brain tissue, ? the Smart Probe is ready
to change its ‘diet.’” ? Animal trials
are measuring ? the sensor signatures
in fat, muscle, kidney, spleen ? and various
regions of the brain. ? It has even begun
amassing data ? on abnormal
tissue by ? examining human
mammary tumors grown ? on the backs of rats.
The neural net is “taught” ? to interpret
weighted sensor data, ? relating readings
to a population ? or within
an individual. ? The moment the thin
needle-sized instrument ? is inserted,
it starts ? to assemble a model
of what is normal. ? When the confidence
level around ? the sensor values is
exceeded, ? it generates a “malignant”
output in ? a fraction of a second.
“This space-age technology won’t ? remain
earthbound.” ? The Smart Probe is scheduled to function
“as part of a ? ‘robotic astrosurgeon’”
attending the crew ? aboard a two-year
Mars mission planned ? for 2020.
Dr. Russell Andrews ? of NASA Ames
Research Center explains: ? “It may sound
like Star Trek, ? but much of the technology
is already here…. ? You could be in Maine
and perform an operation ? in Iceland.”
If symptoms appeared ? during the mission,
a Probe could be ? introduced into the brain,
and the software would compare ? real-time values
with archived parameters ? from pre-launch scans.
“The surgeon, perhaps on Earth, ? could issue
high-level commands,” ? and it could execute
the procedure, if needed. ? We no longer
have to depend on inexact ? tactile feedback;
“This apparatus permits ? finer control
than is possible ? with the human hand.”
Robust, reliable, ? lightweight, compact,
Smart Probes will serve ? multiple purposes.
During the long flight, ? they will assist
in research, ? monitoring, for example,
the effects of weightlessness. ? And after
touchdown, scores ? of Probes will be dispersed
across the surface, ? to analyze tiny
samples of ? planetary terrain
for useful minerals, ? or, conceivably,
even evidence ? of organic life.
— Melissa Monroe
Editor’s note: “Smart Probe” contains intralinear breaks or pauses, known as caesuras. Their use dates in English language
poetry to Old English and Beowulf (8th to 11th century); they function to separate metrical units or contrasting ideas or to
Melissa Monroe is a poet who teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York. “Smart Probe” is one of a
series of poems she has written about medical instruments. She is the author of Machine Language, and a new book, On
Trepanation and Human Nature, is forthcoming.