A breakthrough by researchers means that one day in the not too distant future, I will likely stare out of my window as it is cleaned and imagine seeing millions of tiny robots. It won’t be that I’m delusional, rather there is no chance for me to really see the legions of microscopic machines as they scurry around each shifting a tiny grain of dirt.
Of course, that day isn’t today, but it is reasonable to assume that we are on a path to a revolution in robotics at the microscopic scale (sometimes called microrobotics, microbotics or even nanorobotics). These machines are likely to play a myriad of roles in society ranging from cleaning our windows to excising cancers from our bodies.
The creation of a million simple, moving, robots complete with solar cells recently by a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania has firmly put this on the agenda. The researchers used similar processes to the fabrication of circuit boards which suggests an approach that could be rapidly scaled. This breakthrough is significant because the robots, built en masse, are able to independently move with power provided through a laser and use a technique that has already been shown can add sophistication at a smaller and smaller scale over time.
We all marvel and feel uncomfortable in equal measure watching videos from Boston Dynamics showing humanoid and canine-like machines doing amazing things. Ultimately, though, I’m less excited about the macro end of robotics and much more excited about the micro.
We humans may be the dominant large life form on Earth, but by biomass there is a strong argument that bacteria are the real owners of the planet. The very small is more adaptable than the very large in every niche of our ecosystem. The same has been true in electronics and there is no reason not to extend this principle to robotics.
Large machines are necessarily as limited in their flexibility as we are in our ability to manipulate the world around us. Our opposable thumbs are wonderfully versatile, but it takes a lot of supporting infrastructure to clean a window 50 floors in the air or get those thumbs inside the veins of a patient.
Ever since administration and clerical work became critical to the economy supporting the industrial revolution, we’ve been looking for ways to automate it. Older readers might remember accounting machines, mechanical cash registers and other analogue devices that streamlined administration and continued in widespread use until the 1970s. However, real progress required the emergence of digital computers.
Like back office administration, there has been magnificent automation of our work and home lives through dedicated machines from the production line to the washing machine. It is odd, though, that we’ve never come-up with the universal machine for the physical world as we have for the virtual.
Generations of science fiction writers have imagined humanoid robots playing the generic automation role. Real attempts to realise this have not only shown how hard the job is, but the fundamental limitations of operating at a human scale.
Robots working at microscopic scales could well be the missing link in our technology chain, enabling almost anything to be manipulated at small scales and large by working in vast coordinated armies. Mining for ore on asteroids would be possible as a result of billions of microscopic robots working as a team. Additive manufacturing could occur anywhere on a production line as the robots each deposit a speck of almost any material on items in tightly coordinated unison. Even clothes could be washed while sitting in a basket by a light coating of these robots each with the smallest amount of detergent imaginable. The possibilities are endless.
Since we are talking here about technology that is very much over the horizon, we can have some fun theorising on the ideal characteristics for such a robotic army. While the coming decades are likely to see the addition of complex circuits and control mechanisms for the University of Pennsylvania’s early prototype, in the longer term these machines could even embed organic material.
Regardless of how it is done, there are probably three characteristics that the makers of the most successful robots will seek to include: adaptability, replicability and limitability.
Adaptability: Like the digital computer of the last century, it makes sense to have consistent hardware which is infinitely adaptable through software.
Replicability: Volume will matter given the smallest of devices could be working at the molecular level in some cases. Billions and maybe billions of billions of these machines need to be created. Ideally, the machines would have the ability to build themselves, that is that they should be able to self-replicate.
Limitability: As much as I am an optimist, I worry about the effect of these machines becoming a pathogen or pollutant in their own right. That is why there needs to be a “kill switch” and an environmentally sustainable way for these machines to dispose of themselves.
All of these things are a long way over the horizon, but the early generations of tiny robots is nearly here and it is both useful and fascinating to debate where we are going and what we want this technology to achieve.