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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder