TINY ROBOTS WITH GIANT POTENTIAL
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Overview from TED
Take a trip down the microworld as roboticists Paul McEuen and Marc Miskin explain how they design and mass-produce microrobots the size of a single cell, powered by atomically thin legs - and show how these machines could one day be "piloted" to battle crop diseases or study your brain at the level of individual neurons.
"It was just the feeling of total excitement, like you're doing the impossible. It's a feeling of wonder like that first time I looked through a microscope as a kid staring at that rotifer."
Paul McEuen & Marc Miskin
Physicist & Engineer
Paul McEuen's research explores the nanoscale world. Marc Miskin works on the design and fabrication of cell-sized robots.
The infectious enthusiasm of the presenters – Marc Miskin, in particular – makes it impossible to resist being drawn into their “microworld” of tiny robot armies. The premise of this TED Talk – how mass-produced microrobots can be designed and utilised – is fascinating to me, especially as I recently researched nanotechnology for one of my iluli videos.
To my mind, it’s a given that computer components will continue to shrink in size as scientific and technological advances are made. You only need to look at mobile phones, camera memory cards or SIM cards to see how much things have already changed in the past decade or so.
Us Brits may think of the M1 as a motorway. Apple had other ideas. Launched in November 2020, Apple claimed their M1 chip – the first designed specifically for Mac – wasn’t an upgrade, it was a breakthrough: “With a giant leap in performance per watt, every Mac with M1 is transformed into a completely different class of product.” But it’s only a matter of time before an even higher performing version becomes the norm.
Despite the term nanotechnology having been in common usage since the 1980s - with some of the underlying ideas first being proposed in the 1950s - we’ve only just started exploring the benefits of utilising such a small scale.
Inevitably for such an exciting, experimental and potentially disruptive technology, nanotechnology comes with its fair share of red flags: medical concerns, security ramifications, moral quandaries – to name but a few. To harness its power for good, nanotechnology will need to be regulated but that “how” is a question for another day.
For now, at least, let us enjoy McEuen and Miskin’s palpable passion for the topic of tiny robots. In just 13 minutes, they’ll surely pique your interest too – big time.
IT’S A SMALL WORLD…
Miskin introduces the TED Talk with a clip of a “rotifer” – a microorganism about a hair’s width in size that lives everywhere on earth. He describes being blown away by the sight of a rotifer as an eight-year old boy, awestruck by how this tiny creature hunts, swims and goes about its life within a universe the size of a drop of water.
McEuen steps in to connect the dots:
"So, this little rotifer shows us something really amazing. It says that you can build a machine that is functional, complex, smart, but all in a tiny little package, one so small that it's impossible to see it."
I’m already hooked.
I find the topic of how technology can replicate nature utterly absorbing. As a child, I was fascinated by flying and how jumbo jets could soar in the skies like giant aluminium birds. Or how “sound navigation ranging” (sonar) technology on submarines mirrors the communication and object detection methods used by whales and dolphins. To observe a microorganism in its natural habitat and think “how can we create something that small?” is the type of thinking that changes the world.
They speak of how the robots are so small they could pass through the “thinnest hypodermic needle” you could buy:
…so, if you wanted to, you could inject yourself full of robots.
As things stand, McEuen and Miskin’s challenge clearly centres on the “how”, rather than the “why”. They make suggestions as to what the end-product could be used for (which I will touch upon later), but there is a long, complicated path to navigate – and many ethical dilemmas to debate – before any “real world” usage could be viable.
The notion of injecting yourself with tiny robots evokes memories of the 1987 Oscar-winning sci-fi comedy, Innerspace. With the tagline “An adventure of incredible proportions”, the movie sees down-on-his-luck naval aviator Lt Tuck Pendleton (played by Dennis Quaid) volunteer to be miniaturised for a top-secret experiment. Suffice to say, things don’t go to plan and the microscopic version of Quaid ends up inside the body of a hapless, hypochondriac store clerk, played by Martin Short. If – for some inexplicable reason - you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be a tiny robot inside the body of human being, this is the film for you…
ONE GIANT LEAP…
Thankfully, McEuen and Miskin spend most of the presentation explaining the mechanics behind the tiny robots, without getting too bogged down with hypotheticals.
In fact, part of the footage on display during the talk is of Miskin himself “piloting” the robots. He explains:
"I'm actually piloting the robot in this movie. In fact, for six months, my job was to shoot lasers at tiny cell-sized robots to pilot them around the microworld. This was actually my job. As far as I could tell, that is the coolest job in the world."
That does sound pretty cool, I must admit. Eight-year-old me would have much rather shot lasers at actual tiny robots than waste god knows how many hours playing video games.
The robots themselves consist of the “brains” – catchily named OWIC (Optical Wireless Integrated Circuits) – and the “legs”. They are produced in parallel, thousands – even millions – at a time.
McEuen elaborates on the OWIC element:
"Now, we're very excited about these things for all sorts of reasons. For example, we can use them as little tiny secure smart tags, more identifying than a fingerprint. We're actually putting them inside of other medical instruments to give other information, and even starting to think about putting them in the brain to listen to neurons one at a time."
And it doesn’t stop there. An April 2019 article in The New York Times describes Miskin’s vision in greater detail:
"He imagines a wealth of uses for these microbots, which are about the size of a cell. They could crawl into cellphone batteries and clean and rejuvenate them. They might be a boon to neural scientists, burrowing into the brain to measure nerve signals. Millions of them in a petri dish could be used to test ideas in networking and communications."
An article on nanotechnology by Interesting Engineering offers further insight into the future role of tiny robots in the medical field:
"According to IFL Science, DNA robots are already being tested in the human body to seek out and destroy cancer cells. These programmed DNA strands have the capability to move around and find cancer cells (all in a controlled environment). If human trials go well, these tiny robots could be revolutionary to cancer and other cell research...
"…University scientists also believe that nanobots could be used to reduce plaque in veins, solve dietary issues, along with a whole slew of other medical uses. Extending beyond simple medicine, nanobots would allow humans to reach a greater state of connectivity."
What’s more, microrobots could also be used to facilitate minimally invasive surgery, as outlined by Science Direct:
"Examples of surgical procedures that could be performed by a microrobot include opening of clogged vessels or other channels, cauterization, treatment of hyperthermia, biopsies, electrical stimulation, injection, cutting, drilling, or biomaterial removal."
How exciting to think what opportunities such advancements could unlock, and what discoveries may await by assessing and treating our minds and bodies at such a granular level.
One statement from Miskin during the TED Talk really tugs on the heartstrings:
"Now, I'm a dad, I have a son of my own, and he's about three years old. But one day, he's going to look through a microscope like that one. And I often wonder: What is he going to see? Instead of just watching the microworld, we as humans can now build technology to shape it, to interact with it, to engineer it.
"In 30 years, when my son is my age, what will we do with that ability? Will microrobots live in our bloodstream, as common as bacteria? Will they live on our crops and get rid of pests? Will they tell us when we have infections, or will they fight cancer cell by cell?"
With young children myself, I often wonder what lies in wait for them. The difference is, I tend to worry. A lot. But Miskin sees things differently.
He displays genuine excitement at the prospects that lie ahead; fixated on tackling the ills of today with the science of tomorrow. Pest-free crops, infection detection, beating cancer one cell at a time… It’s moonshot thinking at its most ambitious: tackling universal problems at a microscopic level. And I, for one, cannot wait to see what they and their army of tiny robots do next…