Within 10 years, maybe a little more, robots will be running around inside our bodies. Invisible to the naked eye, “nanobots” measuring millionths of a millimeter will be introduced into us by our doctors, with our consent, carrying drug payloads directly to the target, be it the pancreas, kidneys, lungs or any other affected organ.
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Having reached the target and delivered the drugs, the robotic journey ends, without causing toxicity in the body and bypassing the digestive system, which can reduce the effectiveness of medicine.
Nanomedicine is all the rage. Scientists have already packaged powerful chemotherapy drugs in “guided” nanometer packages some 200 times smaller than a red blood cell. Made of DNA compounds, in molecular terms they fool the body into thinking they’re natural. The technique has had some success – nanobots have been shown to make their way precisely to the tumor and attack it, ignoring healthy cells, a key goal in applied medical research today.
Now the hottest news in the field is pushing visionaries into a whole new sphere, judging by work at Bar-Ilan University presented at the 25th International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, held in New York in July.
Programmed bots in your body
At the conference, an Israeli team from Bar-Ilan University unveiled their latest research into software to enable doctors to program nanorobots directly, using computers. The doctors won’t have to understand robots, just what they want the robots to do.
The team is led by Prof. Gal Kaminka, head of the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Lab in the Computer Science Department and Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University. Their paper is entitled “Rule-Based Programming of Molecular Robot Swarms for Biomedical Applications.”
Presently, nanorobots are developed in a mission-specific way: Each targets a certain disease, delivers a certain drug, and so on, involving collaboration of efforts from medicine, biochemistry, genetics and other fields. Kaminka’s team, which includes Inbal Wiesel-Kapah, (the paper is based on her master’s degree work), Guy Hachmon, Dr. Noa Agmon and Dr. Ido Bachelet, adds expertise in computer science, mathematics and robotics.
Their aim: to program generic nanobots, without the need to build or program each individually to each specific task.
“The robots we work with are smaller than the flu virus,” says Kaminka. “To illustrate this, if the nanorobot was the size of an average person, let’s say 1.65 meters, then the body in which it works would have to be over four times the diameter of the Earth.”
The nanobots are made of DNA folded into unnatural forms: three-dimensional containers and capsules. It is this DNA that the doctors, using the special computer language developed by the Bar-Ilan team, program to reach the specific destination and release their payload.
Kaminka provides the example of one nanobot structure shaped like a pipe 50 nanometers long and 35 nanometers in diameter, which opens into a sort-of canal 100 nanometers long. “But this is only one example of many. There are a great number of studies in nanorobotics for medical purposes, dealing with bringing drugs to a specific location. It is clear that we are on a path that will lead us within 10 to 15 years to creating nanorobotic drugs,” he says.
The new development aspires to be a paradigm changer, by essentially creating an assembly line for nanobots – rather like software engineering. The doctor will focus on building the treatment plan according to the patient’s needs, and this information he generates will be translated using computer language and fed into the system. The result will be a precise construction plan for the nanorobot, adapted to the patient’s needs.
The new research is based on the insight that effort was being needlessly exerted. “We realized that the way the people were building the nanorobots slowed their progress,” says Kaminka. “They develop a specific robot for every drug and disease. The robots may be similar in certain elements, but there is no construction that is wide-ranging and multipurpose. We come to change that.”
Broad, formal logic
The Bar-Ilan scientists looked for broader, more formal logic for the world of nanorobotics, attacking the problem from a computer science perspective: “We wanted the doctor, who is an expert in medicine, not to need to understand nanorobotics and not to deal with the technical aspects of how the robot moves from point A to point B,” Kaminsky says.
In the world of computers and applications, separation between the content and the operating systems, and the links that connect them, is very basic. “When I write software in Java or any other computer language, I don’t need to think about which telephone or microprocessor it will run on. In most cases, I write the code and put it into software called a ‘compiler’ that adapts it for me to a specific machine,” Kaminka explains.
The abstract of the paper presented at the IJCAI conference states: “Future treatments will require swarms of heterogeneous nanobots. We present a novel approach to generating such swarms from a treatment program. A compiler translates medications, written in a rule-based language, into specifications of a swarm built by specializing generic nanobot platforms to specific payloads and action-triggering behavior. The mixture of nanobots, when deployed, carries out the treatment program.”
Treating cancer with nanobots
As in other technological fields, in nanorobotics progress is a constant dialogue between the hardware and software. Progress in one opens a gap and encourages further progress in the other. Kaminka’s innovations seem to be such a step, but because nanorobotics involves nano-sized robots (a billionth of a meter), the separation between the material and the content is blurred.
Kaminka is considered a world leader in artificial intelligence, notably social intelligence in robots, and is involved in applied research in both civilian and military industries. He won the prestigious Mifal HaPayis Landau Prize for Arts and Sciences in robotics in 2013, and led the first Israeli team to the world championships in the RoboCup, the robot soccer world cup. Kaminka uses theories from social psychology in designing robotic teamwork.
Team member Bachelet is considered an especially creative scientist. His lab works on research and applications that combine nanotechnology with synthetic biology, and is working on treating cancer with DNA bots. Last year Bachelet stated that the lab’s robots can identify 12 types of cancer, and that clinical trials on leukemia sufferers should start soon.
The team has its eye on other applications: “For example, in the brain they can improve or disrupt communication between two specific nerve cells, to erase or strengthen memories and behaviors,” he says.
Fallible human factor
Basically, Kaminka feels that what works in smartphones, mixers or the arms of a large mechanical robot would also work here. But even if the principal is identical and a robot is a robot, there are big differences. As opposed to the very technological common apps, the new compiler deals with the living and unpredictable object called man.
The new technology must factor in practically infinite medical and biological parameters. Kaminka says Bachelet’s medical background has helped in this; the new computer language they have developed will relate to clinical parameters such as concentrations of substances in the blood.
Timing is also critical: Nanobots must carry out their actions in a specific order. For example, when a therapy requires multiple medicines, after the robot delivers the first drug a molecular response occurs, which signals a different robot to deliver its drug. How the timing system works does not have to interest doctors – they just enter the prescribed time difference into the computer.
With all the requirements input, the software outputs a program with instructions for manufacturing the robots. This is the first step in the nanorobotic assembly line. Next, the software surveys the available types of existing nanobots, chooses the best for the treatment, or creates a new version with elements from the inventory.
It may sound crazy, but let’s let our imaginations run wild: You are sitting with your family doctor and she types a few lines into the computer – and after a few hours or days you pick up a nanorobotic drug delivery adapted specifically for you. It isn’t that far in the future.