Tiny robots are taking over medical technology

"The system is like a videogame".

In a 2007 episode of surreal British comedy "The Mighty Boosh", Howard Moon and his blind friend Lester Corncrake board a submarine, which is reduced to microscopic size and injected into their friend Vince Noir’s bloodstream, to hunt down and kill a rogue jazz cell infecting his system with an awkward partiality for jazz.

The going is tough, but, of course, the pair wins through in the end, reaching Vince’s brain and eventually stabbing the invasive cell with a safety pin. Vince is saved and his worrying predilection for jazz is no more. 

Crazy, right? Well, not that crazy anymore. As nano-scale technology advances, the idea of tiny machines, barely visible to the human eye, travelling through our bodies and attacking uninvited guests, is not nearly as out there as it seems.

OK, we’re very unlikely to ever be able to shrink the people controlling the machines. And, granted, the miniscule robots being developed today don’t quite boast the complexity of a full-blown submarine; nor are they expected to be deployed to track down punk jazz cells. However, almost invisible nanorobots, which are capable of swimming through the bloodstream and reaching places existing devices – such as catheters – are too cumbersome to reach to either deliver drugs or destroy diseased tissues are becoming a reality. And, using technology usually associated with the gaming industry, they can be extremely precisely controlled.

One such system, which has been developed by a group of engineering students at the University of Alberta, Canada, shows particular promise for the medical industry. Essentially, the team has created a nano-scale robot, which can be controlled using a joystick to travel along a specific route, navigate an obstacle course or push micro-sized objects from one point to another. "The system is like a videogame," explained team member Yang Gao.

This is nothing new, of course. What is new, though, is the form of this tiny "robot": unlike the majority of its counterparts being developed at research centres around the world, which are solid and made up of components including miniscule motors, this little guy is made out of liquid, giving it the edge against its competition when it comes to navigating the complex web that is the human body.

"It’s very easy to change the size of the robot – one can simply inject a different volume when making the robot," Gao explained. "A liquid robot is a lot more suitable than a solid robot for biomedical purposes, too, as a solid robot can’t release drugs easily and tends to be more damaging inside the human body. Finally, the liquid robot is easy to control as it doesn’t travel too fast."

The robot is also magnetic, giving it extra advantages when it comes to being guided and held where it needs to be to release drugs and destroy tissues.

So, how long before the joysticks controlling these potentially disease-destroying droplets are taken from the hands of the engineers and given to the physicians? Well, there’s a way to go yet. While the U of A’s robot performed well in one out of the two challenges in its first public outing at the ICRA Robot Challenges at the IEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Karlsruhe, Germany, in May of this year, it didn’t do so well in the second. Furthermore, it’s a long road to get from the prototype stage to a fully-functioning device capable of performing complex medical procedures, or obliterating damaging cells "Mighty Boosh"-style. "There needs to be in-vitro and then clinical trials," Gao said. "It is still many, many years ahead". Nonetheless, the potential is definitely there. "It’s a promising concept that could one day save lives," she believes. 

More importantly, next time Vince decides to chomp into a jazz record, releasing its corrupting influence into his bloodstream, the rescue mission might not have to be quite so touch-and-go. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Elly Earls is a freelancer for NRi Digital

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Gender pay gap: women do not choose to be paid less than men

Care work isn’t going anywhere – and it’s about time we recognised which half of the population is doing it, unpaid.

Is it just me, or does Mansplain The Pay Gap Day get earlier every year? It’s not even November and already men up and down the land are hard at work responding to the latest so-called “research” suggesting that women suffer discrimination when it comes to promotions and pay. 

Poor men. It must be a thankless task, having to do this year in, year out, while women continue to feel hard done to on the basis of entirely misleading statistics. Yes, women may earn an average of 18 per cent less than men. Yes, male managers may be 40 per cent more likely than female managers to be promoted. Yes, the difference in earnings between men and women may balloon once children are born. But let’s be honest, this isn’t about discrimination. It’s all about choice.

Listen, for instance, to Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs:

“When people make the decision to go part time, either for familial reasons or to gain a better work-life balance, this can impact further career opportunities but it is a choice made by the individual - men and women alike.”

Women can hardly expect to be earning the same as men if we’re not putting in the same number of hours, can we? As Tory MP Philip Davies has said: “feminist zealots really do want women to have their cake and eat it.” Since we’re far more likely than men to work part-time and/or to take time off to care for others, it makes perfect sense for us to be earning less.

After all, it’s not as though the decisions we make are influenced by anything other than innate individual preferences, arising from deep within our pink, fluffy brains. And it’s not as though the tasks we are doing outside of the traditional workplace have any broader social, cultural or economic value whatsoever.

To listen to the likes of Littlewood and Davies, you’d think that the feminist argument regarding equal pay started and ended with “horrible men are paying us less to do the same jobs because they’re mean”. I mean, I think it’s clear that many of them are doing exactly that, but as others have been saying, repeatedly, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The thing our poor mansplainers tend to miss is that there is a problem in how we are defining work that is economically valuable in the first place. Women will never gain equal pay as long as value is ascribed in accordance with a view of the world which sees men as the default humans.

As Katrine Marçal puts it in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, “in the same way that there is a ‘second sex’, there is a ‘second economy’”:

“The work that is traditionally carried out by men is what counts. It defines the economic world view. Women’s work is ‘the other’. Everything that he doesn’t do but that he is dependent on so he can do what he does.”

By which Marçal means cooking, cleaning, nursing, caring – the domestic tasks which used to be referred to as “housework” before we decided that was sexist. Terms such as “housework” belong to an era when women were forced to do all the domestic tasks by evil men who told them it was their principal role in life. It’s not like that now, at least not as far as our mansplaining economists are concerned. Nowadays when women do all the domestic tasks it’s because they’ve chosen “to gain a better work-life balance.” Honestly. We can’t get enough of those unpaid hours spent in immaculate homes with smiling, clean, obedient children and healthy, Werther’s Original-style elderly relatives. It’s not as though we’re up to our elbows in the same old shit as before. Thanks to the great gods Empowerment and Choice, those turds have been polished out of existence. And it’s not as though reproductive coercion, male violence, class, geographic location, social conditioning or cultural pressures continue to influence our empowered choices in any way whatsoever. We make all our decisions in a vacuum (a Dyson, naturally).

Sadly, I think this is what many men genuinely believe. It’s what they must tell themselves, after all, in order to avoid feeling horribly ashamed at the way in which half the world’s population continues to exploit the bodies and labour of the other half. The gender pay gap is seen as something which has evolved naturally because – as Marçal writes – “the job market is still largely defined by the idea that humans are bodiless, sexless, profit-seeking individuals without family or context”. If women “choose” to behave as though this is not the case, well, that’s their look-out (that the economy as a whole benefits from such behaviour since it means workers/consumers continue to be born and kept alive is just a happy coincidence).

I am not for one moment suggesting that women should therefore be “liberated” to make the same choices as men do. Rather, men should face the same restrictions and be expected to meet the same obligations as women. Care work isn’t going anywhere. There will always be people who are too young, too old or too sick to take care of themselves. Rebranding  this work the “life” side of the great “work-life balance” isn’t fooling anyone.

So I’m sorry, men. Your valiant efforts in mansplaining the gender pay gap have been noted. What a tough job it must be. But next time, why not change a few nappies, wash a few dishes and mop up a few pools of vomit instead? Go on, live a little. You’ve earned it. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.