Sunday, August 28, 2016

Octobot to the Rescue!

Acclaimed futurist Ray Kurzweil has a lot of bold predictions (including that computers will become smarter than us within a few decades), and some of his most interesting ones deal with how technology -- especially nanotechnology -- will soon totally revamp how we manage our health, leading to longer, healthier lives and hugely increased intelligence.  Sounds like science fiction, right?

Meet Octobot.

Harvard researchers have unveiled what they describe as the "first autonomous, entirely soft robot," which they call Octobot (it has eight arms, like an octopus).  It has no metal, no battery, no electronics of any sort, yet manages to move under its own power.  It uses a "microfluidic logic circuit" rather than a circuit board to control the movements of its arms and to power itself along, using gas reactions.

And, to make it even cooler, they 3D-printed it.

Octobot seems cute, almost cuddly, more like a child's bath toy rather than a glimpse into the future of robotics.  The researchers are careful to note that, right now, it is only a proof of concept.  It can't do much, and it runs out of power within a few minutes.  But they're already planning a next generation that can "crawl, swim, and interact with its environment," and hope their efforts inspire other researchers.  Some are already speculating about other uses, such as in marine environments -- or within the human body.

If Octobot doesn't -- yet -- quite sound like what Ray Kurzweil envisions, perhaps some work being done in Israel comes closer.  Researchers there used "DNA origami" to create nanobots, which they injected into cockroaches.  The nanobots contained drugs, which, amazingly, the nanobots released based on the brain activity of a volunteer (they had him do math).  He was hooked up to an EEG; his brain activity triggered an electromagnetic coil, which caused the nanobot to release the drugs.  When he stopped calculating, the nanobot stopped releasing the drug.

The researchers see great potential for people to trigger the release of drugs based on their own mental state, not just calculations but moods or feelings.  As they wrote,
"This technology enables the online switching of a bioactive molecule on and off in response to a subject's cognitive state, with potential implications to therapeutic control in disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, and attention deficits, which are among the most challenging conditions to diagnose and treat."  
Researchers in Canada see similar potential for using nanobots to attack cancer.  They loaded up a bacteria with cancer drugs, and used magnetic nanoparticles to steer the bacteria to tumors (in mice).  The nanobots detected the most oxygen-depleted zones -- which indicate the most rapidly growing tumor cells -- and released the drugs in them.

The researchers believe their approach will allow much more targeted chemotherapy, improving effectiveness while minimizing or even eliminating harmful side effects.  Moreover, they say,
"This innovative use of nanotransporters will have an impact not only on creating more advanced engineering concepts and original intervention methods, but it also throws the door wide open to the synthesis of new vehicles for therapeutic, imaging and diagnostic agents."
So far they've just done tests in mice; the Israeli researchers are hoping to test their approach with terminally ill cancer patients very soon.

Another set of researchers, in Switzerland, are working on yet another version of nanobots.  They are also trying to imitate bacteria to deliver drugs to targeted locations.  They layer nanoparticles in "biocompatible hydrogel," line up the nanoparticles via electromagnetic fields, solidify the hydrogel, and insert it into a fluid.  They can make the particles move using magnetic fields, and can change its shape using heat.  These allow for a wide range of movement and behaviors.

The Swiss researchers see the use of their nanobots not just in delivering drugs with great precision but also for clearing arteries.

Victoria Webster, a Ph.D. candidate in engineering at Case Western Reserve University, discussed some of their work in building what she called "biobots" -- robots powered by living cells. They're using sea slugs as a platform, both because it has evolved to survive in a wide range of environments and because we already know much about its neural network, potentially making it easier to program its neurons to do desired tasks.,  She cited targeted drug delivery, cleaning up clots, or strengthening weak blood vessels to prevent aneurysms.  

These are only a few examples of how nanotechnology is progressing rapidly.  There are plenty of others.  So far GlaxoSmithKine is the only major pharma company known to be working on nanobot treatments (which they call "bioelectronics"), but if the field pans out others will have to follow suit, or become buggy manufacturers in an automobile world.

Ray Kurzweil predicts that nanobots will be assisting our immune systems by the 2020's, and that by 2029 will annually add a year to our life expectancy.  As he describes it, "we're starting to reprogram the outdated software of life...we're programming them [genes] away from disease, away from aging."  By the 2030's the nanobots will be in our brain, giving us an additional neocortex that will make us much smarter, although he admits, "but the truth is, we don't know what it will look like."

If Dr. Kurzweil and the myriad of researchers working in the field or not, within a generation the practice of medicine will start to be unrecognizably different.  Our current surgeries, prescription drugs, chemotherapies, radiation therapies, and other interventions will start to seem crude and, in some cases, as misguided as, say, bloodletting.

That's all great news, assuming everyone has access to and can equally afford the enhancements, but could also potentially vastly exacerbate differences between socioeconomic classes, as John Koetsier fears.   The technology is going to make huge changes not just in medicine and health care but in society more broadly.  Hopefully it will help us not just be smarter but also wiser about how we use our new capabilities.

Octobot doesn't seem quite so cuddly now, does it?

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