The authors of a study published this month in a medical journal say that two babies have been born using a new form of assisted reproduction technology, or ART, that utilizes a robot to fertilize a developing human egg.

The fertilization was achieved under the direction of an engineer “with no real experience in fertility medicine” using a PlayStation 5 controller to inject a sperm cell into an egg, according to MIT Technology Review.

Some observers say that this breakthrough could lead to IVF procedures being routinely performed in a gynecologist’s office.

Writing in Reproductive BioMedicine Online, Dr. Nuno Costa-Borges and co-authors said this was the first time a robotic system had been used to guide sperm injection and that automation could make assisted reproduction procedures more efficient, successful and available.

“The manual nature of IVF processes challenges the reproducibility and efficiency of ART,” the authors wrote. “Many existing steps of the IVF process are labour- and time-consuming, as well as subject to high inter- and intra-operator variability. This is reflected in the high variability in clinical outcomes reported by IVF clinics, i.e. the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology.”

They went on to say that automation provided by the use of robots is an important development in the field because “there is a worldwide scarcity of highly trained embryologists, whereas the demand for IVF treatments is increasing.”

Using a robot could allow people with less training to oversee the procedure. In the study, “The ICSIA (automated intracytoplasmic sperm injection) robot was controlled by engineers with no micromanipulation experience. Results were compared with those obtained with manual ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection ) conducted by experienced embryologists.”

In commentary on the study, the journal’s editor, Mina Alikani, called the development “an important achievement and a milestone,” adding, “It is also welcome news to those who see the letter ‘T’ in ‘ART’ (assisted reproductive technology) as fundamental to progress in the field.”

The “next frontier” of assisted reproductive technology, she said, “is full automation of not only ICSI but other laboratory procedures in the interest of consistency, standardization, and wider access.”

While the procedure detailed in the study is but one of a dozen or so procedures involved in “test-tube” conception, other companies are working on robotic processes for the other, MIT Review said. For example, one company founded by a fertility doctor in Mexico makes software that analyzes the quality of sperm swimming in a dish.

The clinic, MIT Technology Review reported, “is running a head-to-head study of human- and computer-picked sperm, to see which lead to more babies. So far, the computer holds a small edge.”

“We don’t claim it’s better than a human, but we do claim it’s just as good,” the company founder, Dr. Alejandro Chavez-Badiola, said.

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Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the advances in ART, however. Writing about the new study, Michael Cook, editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge, said that “IVF is becoming more and more remote from the mother and father responsible for an embryo’s creation.”

But others suggest that the technology could help more babies be born in a time when a shrinking birthrate is of concern worldwide.

MIT Technology Review quoted former fertility doctor David Sable, who said, “How do we go from half a million babies a year to 30 million? You can’t if you run each lab like a bespoke, artisanal kitchen, and that is the challenge facing IVF. It’s been 40 years of outstanding science and really mediocre systems engineering.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2.3% of babies born in the U.S. in 2021 were conceived via assisted reproductive technology. “Although the use of ART is still relatively rare as compared to the potential demand, its use has more than doubled over the past decade,” the CDC said.