The vision of medical nanobots swimming through our bodies detecting and treating disease has been a sci-fi dream for years.
Popular Science just published an article about a centimeter long medical microbot currently in development called the Cyberplasm that could be in use as soon as 5 years. This device is nowhere near the nano-scale, but its a very cool start – a bot swimming around detecting and treating disease from inside our bodies. Such a device will be used occasionally by doctors to perform, for example, much less invasive upper and lower GI scoping.
Actual nanobots, however, are probably twenty years away.
Much closer on the horizon is the Medical Tricorder that will allow quick, cheap diagnosis of many diseases from tiny bodily fluid samples. Put the Star Trek-inspired name aside, this one is coming quick. The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize is challenging researchers to deliver the first generation of Dr. McCoy’s most indispensable device in three and a half years.
Because it will allow daily monitoring of our health, it will move us away from sick care – where we only act when something’s wrong – to true health care where we monitor and tweek our bodies for optimum performance.
Let’s put the window on the common use of tricorders at about 7 years.
Between the arrival of these two technologies – the tricorder you hold in your hand (7 years) and the medical nanobots that operate inside your body (20 years), there is a potential intermediate technology – a med lab that resides on your body – the dermal patch lab.
It would contain flexible (probably printed) electronics – lab-on-a-chip technology much smaller than than the tricorder. It would have a flexible battery. It would be tough – allowing the user to shower without harming the device, but also cheap to the point of disposability – and would be replaced every week or so on a different location on the body.
It would communicate with your smart phone/tricorder device and the cloud. Epidemics would be tracked in real time. And armed with your complete DNA sequence, your geographical location, and real-time monitoring of your health – your own personal Dr. Watson will be able to prescribe the precise medications and dosages you need.
The user will determine how much of this is background – how much data about himself he cares to process. But optimal health will require a level of monitoring and decision-making far beyond anything we do today. We will push most of this work to our AIs.
Within a few years of the dermal patch lab AI doctors will be able to determine down to the molecule what the patient needs, run simulated drug trials on virtual populations, and then order the manufacture and delivery of a drug for a single patient that perhaps no one in the world has ever used before.