A session at this year's Annual Congress of the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland will discuss the potential future of automation in medicine, and is titled 'Advance of the machines, should we be afraid of the anaesthesia robot?'. The session is presented by J Robert Sneyd, Dean and Professor of Anaesthesia, Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, Plymouth, UK.

"Automated systems are ubiquitous in modern living. Thermostats control our heating, televisions tune themselves and aeroplanes land automatically. Robots hold a special place in our imagination ever since the earliest prototypes were configured with a humanoid appearance. Yet in reality, contemporary robots are non-humanoid - robotic arms that build cars and wheeled saucers that vacuum living rooms and clean the bottom of swimming pools!" says Prof Sneyd.

He will discuss the current role of automation in anaesthesiology, including how the ventilators that support breathing for the critically ill configure themselves automatically and make appropriate adjustments when required. Computer controlled pumps run anaesthetic drugs and painkillers into the veins of patients undergoing surgery, changing the rate every few seconds to keep the patient on target. "Even iPhone apps and web-based systems are brimming with medical advice, much of it self-adjusting and tailored to information about specific patients," says Prof Sneyd.

However he concludes: "Whilst the machinery of the operating theatre is increasingly 'smart' the human is still very much in the loop. No robot can pass a breathing tube into the lungs of a tiny baby or guide a needle into a tiny blood vessel. Human bodies are all different and currently far beyond the adaptations of robotic equipment. We might see a robot hairdresser in the next decade but don't hold your breath waiting for the robot anaesthetist!"