Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Coming Revolution in Micro Robotics

While Artificial Intelligence gets a lot of press and is probably the most talked about coming technology.  You've probably heard the story about Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Steven Hawking all warning of the dangers of "strong AI".  Escaping from an AI that goes all Skynet on our primitive asses is one reason that Musk wants to colonize Mars.

A technology that's advancing arguably faster than AI is micro robotics, or microbotics; robots that are around a millimeter long (~.040") or smaller.  Did you ever see the 1966 SciFi movie "Fantastic Voyage"?  An important scientist suffers an assassination attempt.  In a bold move to rescue him, a submarine and its crew is shrunk with a secret ray and injected into him.  The miniature submarine will navigate through his body until it comes to the damage and repair it from the inside.  With suitable dramatics and heroics involved. 

While neither submarines or Raquel Welch in a white wetsuit are mentioned in anyone's plans, the idea being widely discussed is to use miniature robots in place of our cruder tools for micro-surgical repairs or to deliver chemotherapy more precisely:
[Researcher Bradley] Nelson wants to load tiny robots with drugs and manoeuvre them to the precise location in the human body where treatment is needed, for instance to the site of a cancer tumour. Alternatively, the tiny creatures could also be fitted with instruments, allowing operations to be performed without surgical intervention. The advantages compared with conventional treatments with drugs are clear: far more targeted therapy, and as a result, fewer side effects.
Many of the elements of microbotic tech have already made it into our lives, they're just a few generations away from the right size.  Our smartphones and tablets almost all have a gyroscope that operates on MEMS (MicroElectroMechanical Systems) principles.  Hundreds of millions of MEMS accelerometers are used in automatically-retracting seat belts in hundreds of millions of cars around the world.  It's the continued advancement of MEMS and nanoscale machinery that will bring us micro- and eventually nano-sized robotics.
The revolution will come when these devices reach a sufficiently low cost and a high level of sophistication—i.e., when sensors, processing power, a mode of locomotion, and a method of storing or harvesting energy are combined. As research in MEMS and nanotechnology inexorably progresses, this will happen, and micro-sized robots will make the transition from conceptual curiosities to fully realized parts of our lives.
(Robo Bees from Harvard University)

In addition to the medical uses already talked about, we can expect to see medical robots that will map our unique physiologies, clean the plaque out of arteries, and destroy kidney stones. They will help diagnose and combat disease and be used to fight cancer.  I believe that before they're injected into people on a large scale, microbots will monitor and perhaps repair machinery and infrastructure. They will also become another tool for manufacturing.

As with AI, there's a darker side to microbotics.
What effect will legions of nearly invisible robots have on our privacy? Will they close the gap between the part of our lives that is logged and recorded and that final bit left to us? They may be exactly what our neighbors, or employers, or the powers-that-be use to take the last of our privacy. Every time you leave work, you could be carrying an army of microscopic voyeurs.

Microbots will change warfare. They can be used to attack an enemy’s weapons and equipment and the manufacturing facilities that produce munitions. They will almost certainly be used to attack the enemies themselves in some capacity. Even if they aren’t used to kill, they may be used to disrupt an enemy’s biology enough to reduce their effectiveness. Microbotics used for warfare may end up being classified as a kind of weapon of mass destruction.
It should come as no surprise that SciFi writers have already gone here, too.  Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age  explores the concept of well-resourced groups fighting each other with clouds of microbots.  Who launched the attack against a nation may never be known, and the only clue would be clumps of the microbots littering the ground - looking like dumped printer toner. 
(ViRob - a robot currently undergoing tests for treating Hydrocephalus, also known as “water in the brain,” in both infants and the elderly.  It would be left in place permanently, or long term.)

It can be effectively argued that all technologies bring aspects that are scary, regardless of all the good they might bring; and virtually all technologies can go through a period of waiting for consumer acceptance.  In this case, microbotics and AI both share scary dark sides.  It's also the case that technologies look less scary "in the daylight"; once we see them and get familiar with them. 


  1. We already live in a soup of grey goo, called "bacteria". This arms race has been ongoing for a billion years. The largest organ of our body, the skin, is devoted to personal privacy. If we lose the function of our skin, say with a large area burn injury, the goo will multiply and eat us, turning our bodies into their bodies, in days. Food also is held in embargo inside a tube, with each molecule inspected before it is transferred into our bodies. The conveyor belt moves along, and anything not specifically accepted for uptake is eliminated out the other end of the tube.

    We have learned how not to close a positive gain loop around our alimentary canals. Is there anything more basic to civilization than sewers? Even fire is less important once the population density increases.

    The _Diamond Age_ plot assumed gun control works, keeping nanotech out of any hands but governments'. A more realistic projection is that gun control does not work, and every doublewide trailer will have a no-man's land around it keeping the looters and moochers out. Enchanted forest will be especially effective because it stops surveillance from above. Gates etc. are pushing gun control.

    I'm looking forward to a Robot Welch.

  2. It is an unfortunate aspect of the human condition that government - any government - is an entity which seeks greater and greater control over the people who are governed. Pretty much every technological advance - from fire to nuclear energy, to nano-technology - can and _has_ been used to control the governed. So it is a simple fact that nano-technology _will_ be used against us. Some of it we may be aware of (or made aware of by the Snowdens among us), and some will certainly be kept hidden, for as long as possible.

    I anticipate that government's first use of nano-tech against us will be to simply keep track of our whereabouts, to start. I imagine it will be very simple to insert some n-t with your seasonal 'flu shot, or a child's mandatory vaccinations required for attending school. Transmitting the location only when queried via a particular signal established for either people in general or perhaps specific to each individual, it would be likely be undetectable. And it would (will?) get worse from their.

    If you have seen the sci-fi movie called "The Island", you will have a notion of how invasive things can get when the government can track not only your location, but you blood chemistry, emotional status, etc. I'd like to think many of us would opt out (if we are allowed to do so), but if getting "tagged" or monitored is a requirement for being employed, admitted to a hospital or accessing _any_ medical care for yourself or your children, most folks are going to go along with it.

    The pluses will possibly outweigh the minuses, but it will be interesting to see how far we permit government to use emerging technologies to not only invade our privacy, but control our lives - as we already do to a certain extent now, via the IRS, FDA, EPA, DOE, HHS, etc.

    1. "worse from there." How about AI for spell-checks?

    2. Do you mean like "Damn You Auto Correct"?

      I've been typing blog posts for going on 8 years and there isn't a single post that doesn't need a word added to its dictionary. I can understand it not having "microbotics" but not having "wetsuit"?