MAYWOOD, Illinois — Many employees fear the day their jobs will be taken by a machine. The automation of menial tasks is an ever-present risk for many jobs, as machines are able to perform repetitive tasks with unwavering precision. This is bad news if you are employed on an auto-assembly line, but not so bad if you are one of the scientists involved in fighting malaria.
Robots are playing an ever more important role in disease reduction. Those tasks that prove too difficult, too dangerous or too repetitive for your average scientist are often better handled by automated systems specially designed for the task.
Take the malaria research from earlier. The main bottleneck in the process for creating malaria vaccines is getting enough of the virus to create the final product. The main source of malaria virus comes from mosquitoes, which must be very carefully dissected under a microscope to remove their salivary glands. This process requires unmatched precision and is time consuming for the amount of virus extracted. To better streamline the process, an American company by the name of Sanria is building a robot that will automate this process, freeing the scientists to pursue more useful ends with their finite time. Henry Ford would be proud.
The Loyola University Health System in Illinois is using robots to combat infectious diseases through different means. This hospital is using an automated robot nicknamed “little Joe” to systematically clear unoccupied rooms in the hospital of infectious agents. After housekeeping staff perform routine cleaning duties, they wheel in “little Joe” which bathes the room with ultraviolet light. This light is deadly to infectious disease, effectively scrubbing the room with artificial sunlight after just a few minutes. Should these robots be widely accepted, their introduction could potentially save almost 100,000 lives per year, which are normally lost to hospital infections. That’s in addition to the estimated $30 billion of additional medical costs lost to fighting these infections.
If we look further into the future, there are some truly amazing technologies on the horizon. During the recent International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, 84 teams from 21 nations presented projects involving biological machines designed for a wide array of tasks. Some of the finalists in the competition presented ideas seemingly straight out of science fiction, like a cell designed to produce electricity naturally. Another finalist introduced a bio-engineered project that can act as an internal dialysis machine, a project that could have huge implications for anyone suffering from kidney failure. The team from Freiburg, Germany created a basic system for controlling proteins that act as basic programming tools for cells, effectively turning them into machines capable of performing many different functions on the cellular level.
Yet another project which is in the early prototype stage is developing a small robot/creature hybrid that will be able to pinpoint diseases within the human body. This small organism, coined “Cyberplasm,” may one day be able to detect a wide variety of diseases. The implications of this project are huge, potentially providing early detection for many diseases before they become dangerous. While the original prototype is still under development, the teams working on the project believe that the Cyberplasm could start being used in real world situations within three years.
For those factory workers who are forced into a different occupation because of machines stealing their jobs, the rise of robots is a bad thing. For the millions of individuals suffering from debilitating diseases around the world, these machines might just save their lives.
Sources: National Geographic, Newswise, The New York Times, Science Daily