Imagine always being one step ahead of a highly transmissible disease and stopping it in its tracks before it spirals out of control. Wouldn’t that be the proactive, preventive world we want to live in? Sadly, we only realized how crucial the field of epidemiology is after the initial horrors of the Covid-19 pandemic. And now that we have the luxury of analyzing the situation in hindsight, the role Artificial Intelligence plays in epidemiology takes on an even more urgent light – one that seeks to prevent the next pathogen from wreaking indescribable havoc in our already ravaged world.
But why do we turn to AI to accomplish this? Simply put, the amount of data and analysis required to crunch the numbers and make accurate predictions so far into the future is too much for even a relatively powerful computer to handle. Conversely, AI can use machine learning to glean new information from even the most obscure data sets. It is also very handy for identifying patterns and making projections based on data collected by doctors and researchers, allowing it to get ahead of a potential outbreak.
AI seems to be everywhere, so it’s not surprising that some medical advice comes from software, not doctors. With the increasing popularity of telemedicine, more and more artificial intelligence applications are being deployed not necessarily to take the place of doctors but to support them as they provide more accurate diagnoses and more targeted care. Treatment plans, for example, don’t have to be so cookie-cutter. AI can come up with a more nuanced, personalized plan of care that considers the highly individualized needs of each patient.
Similarly, AI is also being used to transform the healing process through health and fitness coaching. A popular virtual reality fitness game,’ Supernatural,’ is an example. Created with the help of hundreds of recordings of real fitness trainers, this game is collated and delivered by an AI’ coach’, making the process of recovery not just a more positive experience but much more individualized as well because of the presence of a ‘personal trainer.’
If you’ve ever had an endoscopy before, you’ll probably know that this type of procedure involves having a small camera mounted on a long wire inserted through a ‘natural opening’ in the body. I know that doesn’t sound like something you’d care to know about if you’ve never had one. However, endoscopies are actually a crucial first step in disease prevention and diagnosis. The scope looks for damage, abnormalities, or foreign objects in your body. For some, that could be an uncomfortable procedure, so count yourself lucky not to have had one, but if you have, then the good news is you probably won’t have to do this again in the future. With the help of endoscopy bots, this procedure could soon become a thing of the past.
Instead, imagine a small robot that can remotely control the delicate work inside the body. Because of its size and wireless feature, it can do the work of a scope without the discomfort of the long wire, or an inevitable tremor or two from the hands that operate them. These robots are also much more precise and, like a veritable Swiss knife; it can deploy various tools, from taking a biopsy to cauterizing a wound.
Another way that robotics has developed to treat diseases is through a device called targeted therapy microbes. Essentially, targeted therapy is a way to curb the growth of a damaging cell by targeting the proteins that control how it spreads through the body. How is this possible? By deploying near-microscopic mechanical particles to specific areas of the body. There, they can deliver a drug or other therapy to target the disease.
This kind of technology is relatively new. However, it is already making waves in the medical field as a high-precision alternative to cancer treatment. Imagine having the ability to save healthy cells from damage by delivering radiation only to the cells that need them. Or, imagie being able to confine the side effects of medication only to the organ that needs them. With targeted therapy microbots, we don’t have to sacrifice the whole to save the parts! These miraculous little bots could propel themselves into our bloodstream and get to the precise location of the disease. There’s no need to play Russian roulette with our health here. Using bots to do targeted therapy is, indeed, life-changing.
A machine made of gold? Fancy! But though this minuscule robot may be made of finer things, its purpose is serious. That is to clear bacterial infections directly from a patient’s blood by using precisely those same gold nanowires, which have been coated with platelets and red blood cells, to do the work. And what ingenious work it is, if I may say so. If antibacterial nanobots were to gain traction in the field of medicine, then we don’t have to rely so much on antibiotics to clear our bodies of infections. These broad-spectrum drugs often leave our bodies resistant to future iterations of the same bacteria, becoming less effective and contributing to the rise of superbugs or drug-resistant bacteria.
Nanorobots, however, can do the same work as an antibacterial drug without the possibility of drug resistance. It works by mimicking a bacterium and its toxin’s target, then trapping the bacteria in the nanowire mesh when it comes close. And because it is a robot, it can be controlled and directed precisely through the body to treat localized infections. Paired with targeted ultrasound, it also can speed up the process of clearing an infection, making it an excellent candidate for treating bacterial infections.
Bigger isn’t always better, at least not when it comes to robots in surgery. Most of the robots we encounter in surgery looks like big hulking pieces of machinery or sleek mechanical arms. However, a branch of robotics explores surgical equipment in the opposite direction, making a robot so small as to virtually eliminate the need for opening up the body through an incision. Instead, microbots, which could be as small as a human cell, can be deployed into the human body and perform surgeries from within! How cool is that?
While scientists have been working on microbots for years, the technology is yet to become mainstream. Because of their size, microbots can be challenging to control and maneuver, especially when used in delicate surgeries. As such, they are still in the testing phase. Researchers are figuring out better ways to deploy microbots as well as make them more pliable and responsive as a tool in the hands of experienced surgeons. But once they do become a legitimate surgical tool, patients can look forward to a faster, less painful recovery and an ideal healing process.
Nanoparticles, robotic biopsies with an MRI, nanodevices with ‘treatment payloads’ — oh my! The potential for robotics applications in medicine is so far-reaching you’d have to get in line. There are plenty of exciting ideas in the realm of robotics in medicine. People just need time to flesh them all out. There is no shortage of scientific minds willing to take on these challenges. For example, a team of mechanical and robotics engineers is working on compact, high-precision robots that can operate within the bore of an MRI scanner. Their goal is to improve the accuracy of prostate biopsies. However, they face a challenge in making a robot that works despite magnets in the MRI.
Other potential game-changing robotics research is on nanoparticles and nanodevices that are even smaller than microbots. This experiment in size aims to develop a small robot that can pass through the blood-brain barrier, allowing them to carry payloads to even more precise locations that are unreachable by current microbot or nanobot technology. Considering all this, the future is bright for robotics in medicine. However, even more importantly, these robots show us not just the possibility of a better future. They also reveal the unshakeable spirit of human innovation that drives us to search for answers continually. We seek to improve everything, especially healthcare, just a little bit.